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The Tillerson-Trump Rift

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (Gong Tu/Shutterstock)

Despite Tillerson’s denials yesterday and Trump’s denials today, the rift between him and the president is impossible to ignore. The Postreports:

For months now, Trump has been piqued by rumors of disloyalty that have filtered up to him from Foggy Bottom, the home of the State Department. In private meetings, the president has also been irked by Tillerson’s arguments for a more-traditional approach on policies, from Iran to climate change to North Korea, and by Tillerson’s visible frustration when overruled. Trump has chafed at what he sees as arrogance on the part of an employee.

And as Tillerson has traveled the globe, Trump believes his top diplomat often seems more concerned with what the world thinks of the United States than with tending to the president’s personal image [bold mine-DL].

If Trump thinks the Secretary of State’s job is to burnish the president’s personal reputation instead of promoting the interests of the U.S. (and I have no difficulty believing he thinks that), it is little wonder that he and Tillerson are such a poor fit. Tillerson may already be widely regarded as one of the worst Secretaries of State in modern times, but even he seems to understand that boosting Trump’s personal image isn’t part of his job. Even if it were part of his job, Trump would make it impossible for him to do that because he is constantly gainsaying Tillerson in public. The president chose Tillerson for the position, but can’t keep himself from second-guessing and contradicting his own appointee and thus guaranteeing his irrelevance in the eyes of other governments.

Tillerson can’t help but be frustrated by not being allowed to do his job without constant interference, and I can’t believe he is any less frustrated by having to go out and pretend that the rift isn’t as great as it plainly is. Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky comment on Tillerson’s statement from yesterday:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a remarkable statement on Wednesday, rejecting reports he had considered resigning and reaffirming his commitment to the President’s domestic and foreign policies. This was both stunning and unprecedented. It was not quite a hostage video, but it seemed awkward that a secretary of state felt compelled to defend himself in response to a press report.

It is more than awkward that Tillerson felt the need to do this. More likely, he was told to do this by the president. Either way, it is hard to take Tillerson’s denial seriously, if only because it is in his interest to be seen as having enough self-respect to be infuriated by the way Trump has treated him this year. If Tillerson was telling the truth yesterday, he is admitting he doesn’t have much self-respect and will allow himself to be humiliated again and again without doing anything about it. If he wasn’t, then he is shredding whatever remains of his credibility to bat down a story about how infuriated he was with the president’s behavior. Regardless, Tillerson managed to come off looking worse than he did earlier, and the perception of the rift between him and the president hasn’t gone away.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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