The firing of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state is one of the least surprising developments of Donald Trump’s presidency.
The two men were not on the same page on many critical issues from the start. Trump often tweeted out positions contrary to those his chief diplomat had publicly espoused.
But the lack of surprise doesn’t mean Tillerson’s departure isn’t troubling. It is — for what it says about Trump.
His graceless dismissal of Tillerson via a tweet diminished both the office of secretary of state and the man in the position. And it continued a distressing trend: Trump’s administration is hemorrhaging people. Its turnover rate is far higher than any recent administration. Trump vowed to hire the best people and boasted of the quality of his Cabinet. But his many differences with Tillerson suggest a judgment problem when it comes to hiring. And Tillerson’s exit follows Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ disastrous interview this week on “60 Minutes” in which she struggled to answer basic education questions, and continuing controversies swirling around the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of Interior, Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development.
This administration must find its footing and start operating with efficiency and integrity.
Trump says he will have better “chemistry” with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, his choice to succeed Tillerson. But Pompeo also will struggle if Trump undermines him and if the principal criteria for keeping his job is loyalty to the president and not service to the country. As Tillerson pointedly reminded his staff in his emotional farewell speech Tuesday, the oath they all took was to the Constitution.
For now, Trump and Pompeo seem aligned on major issues. That should help address the gnawing uncertainty among leaders around the world created by mixed messages from Trump and Tillerson. In those disputes, we more often agreed with Tillerson on issues like staying in the Paris climate change agreement, conducting negotiations with North Korea (a strategy Trump now seems to embrace), and Russia’s role in disrupting the 2016 election. Tillerson’s firing came after he rightly denounced Russia for its alleged role in the nerve gas attack on a former Russian spy in England. And we appreciated his civility, his emphasis on American values, and the degree to which he labored to check Trump’s worst impulses. But Tillerson’s oversight of the State Department was terrible. He hollowed out the foreign service and was unable to stop the exodus of career staff, or boost its low morale. Pompeo must work hard to restore staffing and enthusiasm.
But the larger worry is about Trump. On the same day he jettisoned Tillerson, the president’s personal assistant was escorted from the White House after his security clearance was revoked — and promptly was given a senior job with Trump’s re-election campaign. John McEntee was one of many White House officials yet to receive permanent security clearance because they could not pass FBI background checks.
Trump said he’d hire the best people. He needs to deliver, and to tamp down the chaos to allow those hires to do their jobs, so they can deliver the government the American people deserve. — The editorial board