December 11, 2017

TSC IntelBrief: A Tillerson Exit at the State Department?

On November 30, President Trump responded to media reports that Chief of Staff John Kelly intended to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo by saying, ‘He's here. Rex is here.’

• Persistent uncertainty over U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s current role and future in government threatens to embolden U.S. adversaries, confuse allies and raise security risks.

• Demoralized and short of capable leaders, the State Department is struggling to meet the policy implementation expectations of other national security agencies, a potential danger should a major crisis occur.

• Secretary Tillerson’s prolonged “redesign” process at the State Department has become an excuse for deferring needed actions and avoiding crucial strategic geopolitical decisions.

• The next secretary of state, regardless of administration, will need to have a clear role, engage effectively with Congress and the media, and communicate openly with State Department personnel.


On November 30, President Trump responded to media reports that Chief of Staff John Kelly intended to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo by saying, ‘He's here. Rex is here.’ A day later, the President sounded a stronger note, tweeting that Tillerson was ‘not leaving’ and that he and Tillerson ‘work well together’ despite some policy disagreements. For his part, Chief of Staff Kelly reportedly called State to deny that an effort to oust Tillerson was underway. However, the original reports of Tillerson’s alleged forced departure appear too well-sourced and widely disseminated to have been a low-level staffer’s rogue operation. Either the Secretary of State is leaving his position by mid-February, or President Trump seems to have lost control over the White House strategic communications apparatus.

Uncertainty about whether Secretary Tillerson speaks for the president—and whether his remaining tenure should be measured in weeks or years—diminishes U.S. national security by confusing allies and giving adversaries room to maneuver. It increases the chances of a consequential miscalculation, thereby increasing global geopolitical risk. President Trump has two choices. He can empower his secretary of state and stop undercutting him, with tweets like ‘Save your energy, Rex. We’ll do what has to be done!’ Or, if he’s dissatisfied with his performance, the President should ask Tillerson to resign. 

As Secretary of State, Director Pompeo could draw a line under Tillerson’s ‘redesign,’ an organizationally enervating ordeal that has occupied some 90 people without producing tangible results, beyond closing a few ‘special envoy’ offices. It’s likely Pompeo would also end Tillerson’s over-centralization of decision-making; his small coterie of empowered advisors is both over-tasked and appears out of its depth. Should a major crisis erupt with Tillerson in office, State would almost certainly be unable to meet the policy implementation expectations of other agencies involved in national security. Closeted with and cossetted by a few gatekeepers, Tillerson has learned little of the vast capabilities of the department he runs. The ongoing loss of experienced senior career officials, coupled with a top-down management style that punishes managers’ reasonable exercise of discretionary judgment, exacerbates the risk of State failing to function effectively under pressure. If Tillerson’s redesign is more than a mask for dismantling State’s core competencies, he should roll it out swiftly.  

Whether Secretary Tillerson remains at State beyond his one-year mark in early February, or is replaced by Pompeo or someone else, the secretary of state in 2018 will need either to complete and implement the flagging redesign, or abandon it altogether. The possibility that the redesign might abolish dozens of vacant senior positions is often cited to rationalize not filling those posts. A slow response to the many foreign policy concerns raised by Congress is a direct result of those vacancies, and has strained relations with Capitol Hill. Meanwhile a standoffish posture toward the media has cost Secretary Tillerson valuable goodwill. A senior private sector executive brought in three months ago to lead the redesign’s implementation also recently resigned, reportedly in frustration. One of Tillerson’s over-tasked, micro-managing gatekeepers has taken direct charge. 

A Secretary Pompeo would almost certainly be more in tune with President Trump. Meanwhile, news that Senator Tom Cotton could replace Pompeo at the CIA has alarmed some observers. A letter he wrote to Iranian leaders in March 2015, warning them against striking a deal with then-President Obama, garnered the signatures of 47 fellow Republicans, demonstrating Cotton’s political ingenuity, at least within his conference. It infuriated the White House, however, which saw it as an improper intervention in sensitive diplomatic negotiations. Many CIA veterans fear the ambitious, partisan Arkansan would attempt to politicize their agency, discrediting its analysis and casting shadows over its other responsibilities.

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