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Rex Tillerson ‘Is a Dead Man Walking’

Pity soon-to-maybe-be-former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Here’s a man who can’t get to the sports page of his favorite newspaper without wading through a new round of rumors of his own demise. If it’s not a new leak out of Foggy Bottom saying someone cut in front of him in the cafeteria, presaging a palace coup, it is the New York Times [1], based on unnamed government sources, claiming Thursday that the White House plans to oust him by the end of the year, possibly to replace him with current CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

As of Thursday night, Fox News, based on its own sources, confirmed that Tillerson would be leaving his post in January, noting the “most likely succession plan would involve moving Pompeo to the State Department and nominating Arkansas GOP Sen. Tom Cotton to lead the CIA.” This was flatly, if not glibly denied by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, in a tweet [2].

When Tillerson is leaving—and whether it is by his own choice—doesn’t seem to matter anymore. He is not long for the job. The real question at this point is who, if not Pompeo, will replace the neutered [3] secretary, and what if anything that means.

From his first day, neither the media nor his own organization offered him a chance. Even before the 2016 election results were in, the State Department’s supposedly non-political diplomats leaked a dissent memo [4] calling for more U.S. intervention in Syria, a move opposed by then-candidate Trump. Soon after Tillerson took office, his non-political diplomats leaked a dissent memo [5] opposing the State Department’s role in President Trump’s immigration plans. Yet another dissent memo [6] leaked just ten days ago, this time with Foggy Bottom’s minions claiming their boss was in violation of the law over a decision regarding child soldiers. “Reports” from “sources” claim the Secretary has cut himself off from the organization’s rank and file.

The media offered Secretary Tillerson no rest, proclaiming in near-apocalyptic terms the end of diplomacy, the dismantling of the State Department, and announcing with regularity the loss of U.S. standing in the world. Never one to miss a chance to pile on, Senators John McCain and Jeanne Shaheen sent a letter to Tillerson declaring [7] that “America’s diplomatic power is being weakened internally as complex global crises are growing externally.” In the midst of all this, Tillerson supposedly called Trump a moron [8], and Trump’s tweets were interpreted as undermining [9] whatever standing Tillerson might have had internationally.

Despite factual evidence [10] to the contrary, most mainstream media also claimed State was hemorrhaging diplomats. With no evidence presented (the department has always been notoriously tight-fisted with its personnel statistics), the New York Times stated [7] that among those Tillerson “fired or sidelined” were “most of the top African-American and Latino diplomats, as well as many women.” The media, who had blissfully ignored when State was hiring below [11] attrition during the Obama years, now seized on every routine retirement out of Foggy Bottom as proof that Tillerson was toast. Tillerson’s very presence in office was, according [3] to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a “national security emergency.”

In the face of all this, whether you believed Tillerson’s planned reforms for State were a sincere but misguided attempt at change to an institution already dipping into irrelevance [10], or whether you believed his reforms were the work of a hatchet man sent in to destroy All That Is Sacred, the bottom line was clear: Those reforms were never going to happen, and Tillerson was a dead man walking. Inside Washington, Tillerson had no friends. Then too, Trump’s core constituency could give a hoot what happens at Foggy Bottom.

Reportedly on deck to replace Tillerson is CIA Director Pompeo. In the Politico hagiography of Pompeo, he glows [12] in “favored status in the West Wing.” So what would he be like as America’s 70th Secretary of State?


The signs are not good. Pompeo is a law-and-order, pro-war conservative, and State has always been the most “liberal” (as in committed to the liberal global system of trade and democracy), part of any post-WWII administration. Pompeo is a hardliner on Iran, while State sees as one of its few legacy successes the nuclear agreement with that nation worked out under Secretary of State John Kerry. Diplomats displeased with the relatively bland Tillerson, whose faults extend to apparently not having firm opinions [13] on foreign policy matters, will be repelled by Pompeo’s views.

At CIA, Pompeo’s ideological certainty on issues such as Iranian nuclearization brushed hard against the Agency’s culture, which one official described to TAC thusly: “The CIA isn’t Saudi Arabia; the people there appreciate nuance; they’re married to complexity.” It won’t get better at State, a vast bureaucracy held together by slow consultation, careful discussion, with mumbled what ifs and maybes. Inside Foggy Bottom, the suits are not the only thing favored in shades of gray. Of course, if Pompeo takes the helm at State, Trump will trumpet his successes at Langley. But as it turns out, there aren’t many.

Sources at the CIA explained that to become a successful director “you really have to own the place, which means embracing the entrenched powers, the people on the 7th floor and the one just below it.”

“You’ve got to get them on side, and you’ve got to spend time doing it,” one agency veteran explained to TAC. “I think Pompeo did that for a time and early on people liked him, thought of him as one of them—believed he would have their backs. But that’s changed. He has a temper and he’s used it, and that’s something intelligence professionals frown on. So, not surprisingly, at least recently, he’s started to lose people there.” At State, one does not raise one’s voice.

Looking ahead to a Pompeo tenure, one State Department source told TAC, “There is nothing analysts at State hate more than to have a theory dismissed with ‘But over at CIA they say…’ and Pompeo will walk into the building with that chip on his shoulder.”

As Secretary of State, it is doubtful Pompeo will interact with, or care much about, the organization he’ll head up. As a Trump loyalist, whatever nefarious plans Trump has for the State Department as an institution will find a boss happy to see them carried out. Reports [14] saying Pompeo’s supposed closeness to Trump will be welcomed by the State Department rank and file as empowering are sad gasps in the dark; who wants a boss empowered further against the institution’s interests?

Whatever one believes about the administration’s plans to destroy [15] diplomacy, that belief will more than likely be reinforced during Pompeo’s tenure. It’s doubtful Pompeo will conduct much diplomacy outside the Beltway. But here’s a near-certain prediction: A few weeks after Pompeo takes office as Secretary of State, the media will start writing revisionist pieces claiming Tillerson was a check on Trump’s impulsivity, and is missed at State once they’ve had a look at the ideological ex-CIA chief.

Rex Tillerson has not been the worst Secretary of State and he is far from the best of them. For the State Department rank and file, he was a punching bag, a symbol of what they believe the Trump administration has in store for them as an institution. For the media and some members of Congress, Tillerson was a stand-in for all that they hate about Trump and his view of the world. Rex never stood a chance. It is hard to see anyone seeing Pompeo much differently. He takes office as a dead man walking.

Peter Van Buren, is a contributing editor at The American Conservative. He is also a 24-year State Department veteran, and the author of We Meant Well [16]: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, and Hooper’s War [17]: A Novel of WWII Japan. Find him at Twitter @WeMeantWell [18]


34 Comments (Open | Close)

34 Comments To "Rex Tillerson ‘Is a Dead Man Walking’"

#1 Comment By Minnesota Mary On November 30, 2017 @ 10:19 pm

If the truth be known, I am willing to bet that Rex Tillerson can hardly wait to get away from the State Department and Trump.

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 30, 2017 @ 10:39 pm

I am not sure all those that are caterwauling now thought would happen. I have actually been pleased with Sec. Tillerson’s performance — he seems a moderating influence. I am tired of all the whining about credentials — Sec Tillerson, if state is a problematic mess that’s a mess the Sec. inherited. He didn’t create it.

At any rate, those who have been undermining and all but sabotaging his tenure, may soon get their wish. If he leave, more hardliner will enter the door. And to no small extent the attackers, may regret they got their wish.

Tough foreign policy talk is easy.

I won’t lay any bets the current executive has the courage to toe the line on immigration.

— domestic policies, i.e. immigration, urban revitalization, etc is where we need an executive with courage.

As opposed to the admin game play with employment numbers for appearance.

The strategy is to press a tough foreign policy — pressuring N. Korea and Iran, especially. Whether or not that is a good idea or even woks, is yet to be seen.

#3 Comment By catbird On November 30, 2017 @ 11:04 pm

Sad but true — gave me some laughs in between the tears.

By the way, that culture of nuance and not raising one’s voice — that was the culture of the Yankees, the so-called “WASPs” (Digby Baltzell, you were a great sociologist but you will have to answer for that acronym). It’s not just because I am one, that I feel that it deserved better of America’s opinion makers than what it’s received in the last 50 years or so.

#4 Comment By Whine Merchant On November 30, 2017 @ 11:06 pm

In a Trump administration, Tillerson doing almost nothing is better than what he could have been doing –

Now we risk having another “Weapons of Mass Destruction” conspiracist cheerleader in the role. Maybe a part of Trump’s promised downsizing will allow him to combine State and the CIA into one agency.

#5 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 1, 2017 @ 2:23 am

So the staus quo is both zombie secretaries, whichever direction to or from the fog basement they’re moving.

Looks like the business plan is to cut out the middleman, and move directly to diplomacy by other means – the gunboat version.

#6 Comment By Tom Dooley On December 1, 2017 @ 5:31 am

You’re a hell of a one to talk about pompous jackasses.

#7 Comment By george Archers On December 1, 2017 @ 8:09 am

Sad this article does not get wide media attention. Donald Trump is a spoiled rich kid and very dangerous for the nation.
Presidents are not elected but selected. Do not kid yourselves that Hillary Clinton lost.
Every 8 years each party takes turn.Poor Jimmy Carter got the boot in one term–Wanted peace in Palestine.

#8 Comment By sizing up On December 1, 2017 @ 8:25 am

I agree with your concluding paragraph: no one who takes this job is going to have an easy time of it, because almost anyone Trump appoints will be savaged by the Dept of State rank-and-file, the media, and many in Congress.

If Trump were smart and a grown man instead of a whiny infant, he’d sit down and work things out with Tillerson, who has a lot to offer, given time, and will grow into the job if he doesn’t have to share it with Trump’s jackass Israeli agent son-in-law.

Or Trump could show a little breadth and forbearance and buy a little peace by appointing a sane Democrat, maybe like Joe Biden, assuming that Biden isn’t swept away in the current sex assault craze.

In any case, Pompeo looks like the opposite of a diplomat, and anything that gives that treacherous neocon viper Cotton any more power or access than he’s already got would be very bad news indeed.

#9 Comment By the keeper On December 1, 2017 @ 8:39 am

Tillerson’s departure would be a big loss to Trump.

All his grave-looking, bemedalled military men turned out to be reckless punks, ForeverWar advocates only good at further bogging us down in the Middle East, and his other appointments are mediocre-to-vile New York and Wall Street cronies or (gag) family members. Tillerson is the only cabinet member who even remotely represents the old Bush-the-Elder era Republican Party tradition of prudent statecraft.

#10 Comment By Dan Green On December 1, 2017 @ 9:10 am

With a strong personality in the White House , Diplomats are a voice in the dark. Both Hillary and John Boy ran all over the world while China and Russia

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 1, 2017 @ 9:32 am

“Poor Jimmy Carter got the boot in one term–Wanted peace in Palestine.”

No. More than 365 days of counting down Iran hostage undid Pres Carter’s initial tenure and future tenure in the WH.

It was on that nightly countdown that Nightline was seared into the US conscientious.

#12 Comment By collin On December 1, 2017 @ 10:07 am

Is there any position in our government in whose needs absolute backing of the President?

No, because Rex Tillerson is the chief diplomat and all foreign powers will ignore what he says because President Trump will do whatever he wants. So if the rumors are saying the SOS is Dead to President, then he is Dead to Foreign Leaders. And name one other SOS who had such a bad reputation with their relationship with the President?

TBH, I still don’t understand how Donald Trump ran a business? Successful CEOs don’t act like this to their Senior Leaders.

#13 Comment By Michael Kenny On December 1, 2017 @ 11:03 am

I’ve always seen Tillerson’s role as being to buy off Putin in Ukraine. Literally. With heaps of money. That’s logical since Putin is a total thug and such people always have their price. That doesn’t seem to be happening, probably because Putin and the gangsters behind him still believe that their American associates will hand them everything they want on a silver platter without their having to make any concessions in return for it. That means, however, that Tillerson has outlived his usefulness and a tougher line will have to be taken if Trump is to get Russiagate off his back before it widens to include the whole of his finances and business dealings.

#14 Comment By b. On December 1, 2017 @ 11:39 am

Too much glorification of petty men.

By their associations know them. Anybody who voluntarily joined Trump and his administration has already, by that very act, proven their inability to “make a difference”. Like Powell under Bush, there will not be a “team of rivals”, there will not be resignations, and certainly not a principled display of what would be “disloyalty” to an “elected president”.

“[Y]ou really have to [be seen] embracing the entrenched powers.” At State and CIA, after Iraq 2003? It would appear that, to disrupt the established networks, abolition would be required then. If we are to find people that “appreciate nuance” and are “married to complexity” among the illegal combattants running a signature strike attrition campaign across the globe – the same people that failed to prevent 9/11 – then we are truly done for.

Pompeo and, possibly, Cotton, are incompatible with the CIA in the same manner Trump is incompatible with the US establishment – same hubris, but embarrassingly obvious about it. As long as profits and careers accrue, no one will “raise their voice”. Why should they, when they can leak and scheme instead?

#15 Comment By serviam On December 1, 2017 @ 1:21 pm

“Anybody who voluntarily joined Trump and his administration has already, by that very act, proven their inability to “make a difference”. “

Oh BS. What about the patriots who see themselves as serving the country, not the man in the White House? Or are all competent, decent people supposed to be too good and pure to serve their country. Good thing our military and mid-level bureaucrats don’t take that kind of precious attitude. We need them MORE, not less, when someone like Trump is in office.

#16 Comment By cstrom On December 1, 2017 @ 1:59 pm

I don’t think that we need Establishment, D.C. insiders running our policy.

#17 Comment By Liam On December 1, 2017 @ 2:02 pm

“I still don’t understand how Donald Trump ran a business”

Bankruptcy, bad credit, and being forced to convert much of his business to licensing of a brand without having to manage operations.

That’s how. It helped that he started out with something to lose. Most people don’t.

#18 Comment By Retired U.S. Diplomat On December 1, 2017 @ 2:20 pm

State needs to be dismantled and reassembled in very light form. Tillerson has set that in motion.

As an American retired from the Foreign Service, I know too well that State tends to work to create its relevance. Embassies abroad conduct “busy work” to check off promotion points and to engage in self-congratulatory rituals which are ignored by locals abroad.

In this age of instant and mass communication like email, Twitter, and the internet, the State Department is like a relic of a bygone era straining to prove that it matters when it really no longer does.

State is the custodian agency of embassies. They should continue that role with DOD, Law Enforcement, Intelligence Community, and other key elements leading the way. State’s wasteful public diplomacy, spousal employment, USAID, Millennium Challenge programs are flushing hundreds of millions down the toilet.

Slash State and the Foreign Service to 25% of its current level. Tillerson will get us there and, once complete, turn it over to a Trumpian foreign policy wonk.

#19 Comment By One Guy On December 1, 2017 @ 2:55 pm

Didn’t anyone read “John Kelly’s” tweet? It says it’s a parody account (in the bio).

#20 Comment By LouisM On December 1, 2017 @ 3:22 pm

Tillerson and Trump never seemed to be on the same page. Tillerson always seemed to differentiate his views from Trumps such that he was more politically correct and moderate and Trumps was outspoken not thinking before he talks. As President, you just cant have your staff doing their own thing and undermining your leadership in the public even if they are respectful and in sync in private. I also think Tillerson accepted all the trappings of the job and distinguishing himself from Trump was all part of an eventual exit strategy.

The person I don’t understand is Trump/Sessions. I would have thought Sessions would have been fired months ago and certainly as he recused himself and was found to be part of the fabric of Obama/Clinton collusion and corruption.

#21 Comment By DC Insider On December 1, 2017 @ 3:51 pm

The article and commentary miss two key points: 1) the State Dept. has become almost as irrelevant as the UN. Most presidents going back at least 50 years have brought substantive foreign policy into the WH, so Tillerson’s weak status — perceived or real — is hardly a new thing. Hence, it doesn’t really matter who is SoS.

2) What does matter is that the empty-skirt airhead now serving at the Tower-of-Babel UN — Nikki Haley — is not named SoS. In fact, the Necons have been pushing for her to replace Tillerson for weeks. They want her because she is an empty vessel, and as such can be manipulated and used to their nefarious, warmongering aims.

It is a fact that Haley — from South Carolina — gets her talking points and marching orders every day from SC Senator Lindsay Graham-cracker, who other than McCainiac is the worst of the Neocons who want to fight endless and perpetual wars across the globe. In fact, one couldn’t fill a thimble with what Haley knows about foreign policy or any other thing of substance.

It is imperative that conservative-populists resist any attempt to elevate Haley’s career to a position as high-profile as SoS — despite that it is no longer a substantive role, though it should be and could be again, if as noted by the author and others, we would de-militarize our foreign policy, quit policing the world, stop meddling and intervening in other countries’ affairs, and begin the long, hard process of rebuilding America that our leaders have neglected for 50+ years.

The ultimate aim of the Neocons is to have Haley be chosen as Mike Pence’s vice president — or whomever gets the GOP nomination after Trump — and ultimately to make her president. This is as much “Manchurian-candidate”-type nefarious activity as was Obambi’s election as president — an outsider who spent half his youth growing up in Muslim Indonesia, was of African descent to a former Kenyan communist along with a Kansan-communist mother, and who in substance was a radical Muslim sympathizer and Marxist. It is truly the stuff of Hollywood — and so would be Haley’s advancement to the presidency, which is the true goal of the DC-Neocon movement.

Finally, Pompeo might be a Neocon too — but as the SoS post doesn’t matter anymore, and he is not Haley, it would be worth it to have him there. Anyone but the empty-skirt, airhead Nikki Haley as SoS!

#22 Comment By Cynthia McLean On December 1, 2017 @ 4:45 pm

The War Machine is winning.

#23 Comment By EarlyBird On December 1, 2017 @ 4:58 pm

I’m surprised Tillerson has lasted this long. He seems one of the few high profile members of Trump’s cabinet with any decency. I always felt that he was as surprised as anyone he was called to the office, but took it out of a genuine sense of duty.

I hope after he’s gone he will be willing and able to publicly warn Americans about what a hazard Trump is.

#24 Comment By Peter Van Buren On December 1, 2017 @ 5:06 pm

I agree fully with Retired U.S. Diplomat, who said “State needs to be dismantled and reassembled in very light form.”

State is trapped in the 19th century and needs to change to match the modern world. Or fade into basically an innkeeper for embassy properties.

#25 Comment By Khan On December 1, 2017 @ 9:17 pm

The plan is transparently obvious as Tillerson stood in the way of the Israeli-Saudi-UAE plot to get America involved in another war of aggression, this time against Iran which will be far worse than the Iraq fiasco.

Tillerson undermined Kushner and Bannon on Qatar, the kidnapping of Hareri, and Yemen. Now with the Armageddon Evangelical fanatics and Likud shills Mike Pompeo and Tom Cotton on board only the American people can prevent the Dotard facing impeachment from launching this disaster. AIPAC’s agents of influence and Armageddon fantasists must be confronted by a mass popular mobilization to prevent another global disaster which can threaten our democracy at home as well.

#26 Comment By Thaomas On December 1, 2017 @ 10:21 pm

I think Tillerson is being phased out BECAUSE he has been a check on Trump. I suspect whoever replaces him will be worse (less of a check).

#27 Comment By Fred On December 1, 2017 @ 11:32 pm

“State needs to be dismantled and reassembled in very light form.”

You could say that about the Federal Government in its entirety.

#28 Comment By Barry On December 2, 2017 @ 2:14 pm

Serviam: “Oh BS. What about the patriots who see themselves as serving the country, not the man in the White House? Or are all competent, decent people supposed to be too good and pure to serve their country. Good thing our military and mid-level bureaucrats don’t take that kind of precious attitude. We need them MORE, not less, when someone like Trump is in office.”

I believe that the reference meant cabinet-level people. And at that level the ‘honest’ guys are the guys who have not yet openly proved their corruption.

#29 Comment By Spencer On December 2, 2017 @ 9:11 pm

Trump administrates like he is still on his NBC (ironically) show. He fires on a whim and executes impulsively.

#30 Comment By MEexpert On December 3, 2017 @ 11:18 am

It will be a sad day if we lose Secretary Tillerson. His was a moderating voice among the neocon hyenas. State Department is a place for diplomacy and Tillerson looks very much like a diplomat. In any other times, Secretary Tillerson would have been a good, if not great, Secretary of State. Trump does not believe in diplomacy as his tweets demonstrate. It is Trump who is the cause of Tillerson’s failure.

#31 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 3, 2017 @ 2:14 pm

“As an American retired from the Foreign Service, I know too well that State tends to work to create its relevance. Embassies abroad conduct “busy work” to check off promotion points and to engage in self-congratulatory rituals which are ignored by locals abroad.”

I am not sure what you are describing is not a reflection of our political bureaucracy.

“we would de-militarize our foreign policy, quit policing the world, stop meddling and intervening in other countries’ affairs, and begin the long, hard process of rebuilding America that our leaders have neglected for 50+ years.”

White we cannot fully uncouple the ,military from foreign affairs (the military is in fact a foreign policy tool) I would agree that we could certainly stand a moving the military from a forward lean in all foreign policy issues.


I fully understand why many want to blame the current Pres will all things gone amiss. But it simply is an unreasonable advance. It is as incorrect as blaming the last executive for the nation’s decline. Where we are is the direct result seventy years of expertise and leadership from a very small circle of schools, it is akin to the concerns of inbreeding and I suspect there is more truth as to the ills of that small self reconstituting merry-go-round than actual inbreeding.


since I lean heavily in biblical meaning and truth, I think there is valid reason to be concerned in the use of that scripture to decipher the role that Israel will play in what is often called, “end times”. Comprehending revelations in US political terms is tricky business.

The tax payers have been blessing Israel for more than 40 years, and they are entitled the blessings that are supposed to follow. It is not reserved for the inside track of politicians.

#32 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 3, 2017 @ 2:50 pm

Side note:

I have been watching the programs Madam Secretary this weekend on Netflix Interesting, enjoyable, well cast and well performed, thought provoking, too many pat answers perhaps, but still worthwhile, very much so. I thought it was going to regurgitate the wonders of Sec Clinton, but in in nearly every respect, that state department rejects almost all of the ills associated with that admin, at least thus far.

I would love some to explain the entertainment industry’s fondness for interjecting same sex relations into everything . . . it’s annoying from so many angles.

#33 Comment By More Time On December 3, 2017 @ 3:23 pm

Kushner’s “Meddling for Israel” troubles with Mueller may give Tillerson a reprieve. I hope so. I still think he’s the only thing resembling an adult in this administration.

#34 Comment By PETE SMITH On December 3, 2017 @ 9:57 pm

There have been many highly successful business leaders who have considered high level government positions, and thought the better of it. There is a skill set to successfully managing a government agency, and Mr. Tillerson’s time at Exxon did not provide it to him. Especially a large agency in need of reorganization. And, of course, its obvious his relationship with his boss is disfunctinal as it is for most.