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Rex Tillerson never quite got in step with Trump

The button-down, tight-lipped oil executive had a hard time staying on the same page as the erratic president.

Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson holds a news

Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson holds a news conference with Nigeria's foreign minister in Abuja on March 12, 2018, a day before President Donald Trump fired him. Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images / JONATHAN ERNST

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is out at the State Department, and CIA Director Mike Pompeo is the announced replacement as America’s top diplomat. Once again, our zigzag president disseminated the information on Twitter.

Tillerson, the 69th secretary of state, learned he was fired when an aide showed him President Donald Trump’s tweet. Yet again, the Trump administration turns its foreign policy on its head. It made its intentions “foreign” even to staff at State, who are charged with implementing it; while simultaneously confusing our allies and giving comfort to our enemies, who can take advantage of turmoil and instability in our government.

Tillerson never quite got in step with Trump. The button-down, tight-lipped oil executive had a hard time staying on the same page as the erratic president, who doles out foreign policy assignments to people like son-in-law Jared Kushner or daughter Ivanka Trump rather than to the agencies responsible for our overseas relationships. It’s hard to be in charge of Middle East peace or the North Korea nuclear challenge if you are simply waiting for the next tweet or the next pronouncement from a foreign leader like the president of South Korea announcing that the American president will be meeting with the head of North Korea. It is hard to be in charge of American diplomacy when your diplomats are leaving the State Department in droves like Ambassador to Panama John Feeley or Ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobson. It is hard to be in charge of U.S. policy toward Iran when the decisions about a nuclear agreement become like a football passed to a dysfunctional Congress.

For his part, Tillerson never got off first base with his supposed “reorganization” of the State Department, which has pretty much been abandoned in favor of a “redesign.” After spending gobs of money on consultants and failing to fill vacancies, including the post of ambassador to South Korea, Tillerson was becoming known as the guy who couldn’t get much done other than “drain the swamp” of much needed diplomatic support at home and abroad. While young people still seek jobs at State and those inside are highly motivated, the mid-career and senior leaders are miserable. Morale is at an all-time low. More than 50 top foreign policy jobs remain vacant.

Amid all the news in the world — Russia meddling in American elections, potential talks with North Korea, conflict in Syria, trade wars with China — the chairs on the deck of State are now being reshuffled. For most Americans, it won’t change much in the way of health care, taxes or the condition of roads and bridges. But for those who handle U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy, these disruptions matter because they signal an absence of leadership on the world stage, and a lack of direction in complex times when American values and influence can help steady the world.

Buckle your seat belts. This could be rocky.

Tara D. Sonenshine is a former under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs and advises graduate students at The George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs.

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