It wasn’t the disagreement over moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, the wisdom of direct talks with North Korea or even the very clear split with the President over Russia’s aggression. In the end, calling Donald Trump a “moron” last year — and the broader personality clash it represented — was what cost Secretary of State Rex Tillerson his job on Tuesday.
The move could mark the start of a broader purge. Republican officials say Trump has grown tired of listening to advisers who have tried to moderate his style. Now, these officials say, Trump will do things to his liking.
“It’s no secret the President is not a patient man. Now, he’s really out of patience and will be doing things his way,” said one Republican on Capitol Hill who worries what that means for the GOP’s odds of holding its majorities in this fall’s midterm elections. “The President tried it their way and didn’t like what he was seeing. Now, he’s going to try it his way.”
Trump fired Tillerson by tweet, expelling the former energy company CEO at an moment the U.S. is in dozens of hotspots around the globe that require constant tending and the President seems determined to shed his minders and go it his way. The pair spoke hours later, only after Trump had announced CIA Director Mike Pompeo would move from spy chief to chief diplomat.
Even by Trumpian standards, Tillerson’s fall was dramatic. White House chief of staff John Kelly hinted that the dismissal was in the offing during a Friday phone call with the Secretary of State, who was abroad on a diplomatic mission. Kelly strongly suggested Tillerson should cut his trip short and get back to the U.S., according to a White House official.
Tillerson’s team at first suggested the move caught him by surprise and that he learned about it only when an aide showed him the Twitter post. His aides said the secretary did not know why he had been fired before Trump tweeted the news.
The White House quickly fired a State Department spokesman for contradicting their story.
Tillerson’s departure is just the latest from Trump’s orbit. On Monday, Trump’s personal aide, John McEntee, was escorted from the White House; CNN reported McEntee was under investigation for financial affairs unrelated to Trump. (On Tuesday, Trump’s re-election campaign announced McEntee was joining the effort in a senior role.) Last week, top economic adviser Gary Cohn, a millionaire Democrat, announced he was leaving the White House. And a week before that, Hope Hicks announced she was leaving her post as White House communications director and all-around Trump whisperer.
Trump clashed with Tillerson repeatedly on foreign policy, often undercutting the man he lured away from ExxonMobil to be America’s envoy to the world. Tillerson, for his part, did the same, often contradicting Trump’s White House. Foreign diplomats were sometimes unsure if Tillerson was speaking on behalf of the United States or not.
The latest example came in recent day when asked if Russia was responsible for the poisoning of a former spy. Tillerson laid blame on Russia. Trump said it could have been Russia or someone else, and White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to assign blame.
Days before that, Trump bristled when Tillerson contradicted the President on talks with North Korea. And before that, the pair disagreed on tariffs on steel and aluminum, negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, a global climate change pact and staffing levels in Foggy Bottom. Trump proposed a budget that cut State Department programs by 25%.
To say Trump and Tillerson had a rocky relationship would be too diplomatic. Trump saw Tillerson as too cautious. Tillerson saw Trump as woefully under-prepared for his diplomatic efforts and, in a famous moment of private candor, a “moron.” For that last affront, Trump ordered Tillerson to make a public statement denying it; Tillerson made a statement but didn’t dispute the NBC News scoop on the insult.
Now, Tillerson is packing his wood-paneled office on the seventh floor of the State Department and heading to private life, 14 months after he joined the administration. At the close of business Tuesday, he planned to hand over his power to his deputy while the department waits for Pompeo to win confirmation in the Senate. Tillerson said he would maintain his commission until the end of March.
In Pompeo, Trump will have a stronger pal. The former congressman from Kansas has cultivated a relationship with Trump during daily intelligence conversations in a way Tillerson never bothered to forge. Trump likes Pompeo, and the pair shares a harsh view of what is taking place outside America’s borders. In particular, the pair shares worry about the threat posed by Islamic extremism. Neither has shied away from going after Muslims with inflammatory rhetoric and targeted policies.
What this means to Trump’s broader national security footing remains to be seen. Tillerson was seen as a moderating factor, often working in tandem with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who was making a surprise trip to Afghanistan when the Tillerson news broke. Trump often found himself facing unified opposition from Tillerson and Mattis and, more often than not, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who is also said be eyeing the exits.
All of this leaves Trump relying on his gut and without the guardrails that kept him in line during his first year. That style served him well in his political campaign, and Trump is itching to return to it: Saturday night’s raucous campaign-style rally near Pittsburgh was a sign of things to come. But that could yet prove perilous in the White House Situation Room.