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Rex Tillerson © Mark Reinstein

The Tale of an Incompetent President and His Secretary

If the reports are true, Rex Tillerson was correct to call Donald Trump a moron. But that doesn’t get him off the hook.

It is reassuring to hear that President Donald Trump’s obdurate behavior has stupefied his own cabinet members and not just the American people. On October 4, NBC News reported that Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, had considered resigning over the summer and, at one point, had called Trump a “moron” after a meeting at the Pentagon in late July. Stephanie Ruhle, one of the journalists who broke the news, stood by her story in an MSNBC interview amidst questions over its validity. “My source didn’t just say that he called him a moron. He said an f-ing moron,” Ruhle said.

At a press conference addressing the report, Tillerson refuted the allegation that he had threatened to leave the White House, but he did not deny that he ever called Trump a moron. “Let me tell you what I’ve learned about this president, whom I did not know before taking this office,” Tillerson told reporters. “He loves his country. He puts Americans and America first. He’s smart, he demands results wherever he goes, and he holds those around him accountable for whether they’ve done the job he’s asked them to do.”

Whether the NBC reports are true or not, it is more than probable that tensions between the two men have long been in gestation. Ever since Tillerson’s tenure began, Trump has contradicted and undermined him. In June, for instance, as Secretary Tillerson attempted to mediate a dispute between Qatar and other Gulf states, President Trump held a press conference lambasting the Qataris and describing them as a “funder of terrorism at a very high level.” And, according to The New York Times, Jared Kushner may have a hand to play in the tumult as well. “Some in the White House say that the discord in the Qatar dispute is part of a broader struggle over who is in charge of Middle East policy — Mr. Tillerson or Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a senior adviser — and that the secretary of state has a tin ear about the political realities of the Trump administration,” the report reads.

Most recently, Trump sent out another series of feckless tweets, but this time targeting the secretary and his diplomatic foibles with North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong-un, whom the president refers to as “rocket man.” “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man … Being nice to Rocket Man hasn’t worked in 25 years, why would it work now? Clinton failed, Bush failed, and Obama failed. I won’t fail,” Trump tweeted.

IS TILLERSON ON HIS WAY OUT?

This is certainly not to excuse the indolence of Tillerson, who will presumably go down in history as one of the worst secretaries in American history. As these two Politico reports show, Tillerson has been most adroit at contributing to the mass departures of many future diplomatic leaders. Additionally, hundreds of positions in the State Department still remain empty.

Some have compared Trump’s proclivity to be unpredictable when it comes to foreign policy with Richard Nixon’s “madman theory.” But the parallels eventually veer off when understanding that the Nixonian strategy — from his opening with China to the détente with the Soviet Union — was carefully coordinated and meticulously crafted. The Trumpian strategy, however, has been wholly inept and sheer buffoonery, particularly when it comes to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Accord.

And just as his uncontrollable adversary in Pyongyang, Trump’s threats are all vacuous and bluster. David Graham of The Atlantic correctly notes: “An equally likely—or even more likely—outcome is that North Korea will conclude that Trump is capable of nothing, based on past results.” It would certainly be helpful if someone could illuminate the public as to where Trump’s continuing humiliation of his White House subordinates or the North Korean leader through social media fits in with his overall policy agenda. Trump’s impulse to impair his relationship with Secretary Tillerson, at a time when the world is rife with challenges needing to be dealt with, is just another example of a derelict in office instead of a foreign policy tactician.

As Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky point out, Tillerson’s urge to defend himself from the claims made by the NBC report is not unique but awkward nonetheless, as it suggests that even he is willing to endure the same degree of humiliation from the president just like the rest of his sycophants. In fact, his denial of the claims has only made the visible rift even more obvious.

Whether Tillerson is on his way out or not, the same challenge will fester no matter who fills the role of secretary of state — that is to try to temper a perpetually unruly president who routinely undercuts his subordinates. While we watch in mild stupefaction as our credibility on the world stage unravels, the prescient words of the late American writer H.L. Mencken come to mind: “On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Mark Reinstein / Shutterstock.com