Skip to main content

Does the Secretary of State Still Matter?

Under Trump, the Department of State has become a shell of its former self, and nobody—not Tillerson, not Pompeo—can change that.
Rex Tillerson disembarks from his plane on March 9th, 2018.

Rex Tillerson disembarks from his plane on March 9th, 2018.

In February of 2017, former Exxon Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson entered the White House as a powerful avatar for moderates' and progressives' worst fears about the nascent presidency of Donald Trump: big corporate interests making deeper inroads into the United States government, the ascension of oil and gas interests in the White House, and alarming conflicts of interest with Russia. But on Tuesday, a little over one year after he was confirmed as secretary of state, Rex Tillerson was made the latest Trump cast-off.

On March 13th, Trump announced his intent to replace Tillerson as the nation's foremost diplomat with Central Intelligence Agency chief Mike Pompeo; the president broke the news (including to Tillerson himself) through a tweet. The firing was a long time coming: Reports from October of 2017 alleged that Tillerson had referred to the commander-in-chief as a "moron" during a meeting at the Pentagon. Still, Tillerson's exit, more than any other departure since Trump took office, captures the true nature of this quixotic administration.

Tillerson spent his entire time in Foggy Bottom finding himself steamrolled by Trump's preferred foreign policy advisors—his generals, and therefore the Department of Defense—and hamstrung internationally by Trump's policy-by-tweet strategy. He'd also been reduced to a bit role on the world stage—Tillerson hadn't been involved at all in Trump's latest dealings with North Korea, according to the Washington Post. So it's not like the termination in itself is so Earth-shattering; it's how Trump did it that is.

The Tillerson/Twitter humiliation offers a telling look at the upper echelons of the Trump administration. While Tillerson's conflicts of interest were certainly of concern (see: the Rosneft controversy), they were also of less import than they would have been under other administrations. That's because, under Trump, the the Department of State—and with it the secretary of state—no longer matter.

The Department of State has become a shell of its former self under Trump. Eight of the top 10 leadership positions at the Department of State remained vacant while Tillerson reportedly built his own power center; and, according to The Atlantic, the department shed some 12 percent of its foreign affairs staff in the first eight months of the Trump administration. When asked in November about this deficit in brainpower in the foreign service, Trump offered a telling retort: "I'm the only one that matters." Just four days later, award-winning political officer Elizabeth Shackelford resigned with a scathing critique of the commander-in-chief, a departure that marked a growing exodus of civil servants at the Department of State.

"I have deep respect for the career Foreign and Civil Service staff who, despite the stinging disrespect this Administration has shown our profession, continue the struggle to keep our foreign policy on the positive trajectory necessary to avert global disaster in increasingly dangerous times," Shackleford wrote. "With each passing day, however, this task grows more futile, driving the Department's experienced and talented staff away in ever greater numbers."

When taken with Trump's statement—"I'm the only one that matters"—Shackleford's resignation reflects a more curious dysfunction. Trump is, in some ways, the very embodiment of the chief executive envisioned in Article II of the Constitution: commander of military forces in defense of the nation, everyone else be damned. With his aversion to the "deep state" and preference for the strength of military power rather than the nuances of multi-party diplomacy, it's no wonder Trump would embrace the expediency of "his generals" and his Twitter feed over the slow grind of statecraft to channel the constitutional power that is so rightfully his. And even if there is a time for negotiation: Why send Rex Tillerson when Mr. Art of the Deal himself is sitting in the Oval Office?

There's a big of irony here. Before the Great Depression and the New Deal, the executive branch was tiny, and its expansion—the "imperial executive," encroaching on the legislative and judicial—has been a major cause for concern for small government originalists. With Trump increasingly wielding his power as lone decider, the question of Tillerson or Pompeo as chief diplomat may be moot. Trump will do what Trump wants, and the Department of State will remain irrelevant in the meantime.