One of President Donald Trump’s special gifts is his ability to humiliate his underlings. He has called Attorney General Jeff Sessions “an idiot” to his face, and convened his cabinet so its members could sing Dear Leader’s praises in front of the press. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s bizarre press conference on Wednesday, called for the sole purpose of denying reports of a severe rift with the president, is the latest example of the indignity of working for Trump.
It’s undeniable that Trump and Tillerson are at odds over the most serious issues facing American foreign policy. As befits his position, Tillerson has tried to act as a diplomat, negotiating with North Korea, Qatar and Iran. But time and again, Trump has undercut Tillerson’s position, most notably by tweeting earlier this month about negotiations with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
According to The New York Times, the dispute earlier this year between Qatar and the other Gulf states was an even bigger issue. “The episode that Mr. Tillerson called a real breaking point, according to associates, came when he was trying to mediate a dispute between the Persian Gulf state of Qatar and its Arab neighbors,” the Times reported Wednesday. “The secretary had long told colleagues that relationships he built over decades in business made him uniquely qualified to broker a deal. ... When Mr. Tillerson publicly called for a ‘calm and thoughtful dialogue,’ the president less than an hour later lashed out at Qatar as a financier of terrorism.”
That was in June. By July, according to an NBC News report on Wednesday, Tillerson “was on the verge of resigning” and had “openly disparaged the president, referring to him as a ‘moron,’ after a July 20 meeting at the Pentagon with members of Trump’s national security team and Cabinet officials.” At his press conference later on Wednesday, Tillerson refused to deny this report, saying instead, “I’m not going to deal with petty stuff like that.” In a subsequent briefing, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert denied the “moron” comment on Tillerson’s behalf.
In his press conference, Tillerson reiterated his loyalty to Trump and desire to serve as long as the president desired. But as debasing as Tillerson’s performance was, it might not be enough. The Washington Post reports that Tillerson remains on a “death spiral” because “the already tense relationship between the two headstrong men -- one a billionaire former real estate developer, the other a former captain of the global oil industry -- has ruptured into what some White House officials call an irreparable breach that will inevitably lead to Tillerson’s departure, whether immediately or not.”
It is possible to see Tillerson’s fissure with Trump, as the Post does, in personal terms (“two-headstrong men”). But the dispute is rooted in something more than individual quirks. At a fundamental level, Trump’s entire approach to foreign policy is anti-diplomatic, so the president would quarrel with any secretary of state who tries to do the job properly. As a nationalist, Trump repeatedly disparages other nations, including longtime allies like Canada, Mexico and Germany, accusing them of trying to take advantage of the United States, which he claims is a victim of “bad deals.” Trump’s zero-sum view of the world and personal narcissism, where everything is measured by how it rebounds to his benefit, makes the very act of finding common ground with other countries a pointless endeavor. According to the Post, “as Tillerson has traveled the globe, Trump believes his top diplomat often seems more concerned with what the world thinks of the United States than with tending to the president’s personal image.”
Establishment stalwart Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, thinks Tillerson should resign. Conversely, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker sees Tillerson as an essential bulwark against the worst tendencies of the Trump administration. “I think Secretary Tillerson, Secretary Mattis and Chief of Staff Kelly are those people that help separate our country from chaos,” Corker told reporters Wednesday. “They work very well together to make sure that the policies we put forth around the world are sound and coherent. There are other people within the administration in my belief that don’t.”
Although Haass and Corker are arguing for different outcomes, they are making the same mistake: grossly overestimating what any secretary of state can accomplish under Trump. Since this president is inimical to diplomacy, the question of who should be secretary of state is moot. There are no good options.
If Tillerson stays on as Secretary of State, America will have an incoherent foreign policy with the chief diplomat and president sending the world mixed signals. But let’s say Tillerson resigns. His most likely replacement, according to the Times, is United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has shown herself to be much more subservient to Trump’s foreign policy whims. Haley would give America a more coherent foreign policy, but a worse one: Trump’s erratic tweets would become the undisputed voice of the U.S. government’s diplomatic positions.
Neither Tillerson nor Haley can save American foreign policy from Trump’s belligerence and bullying. The only real hope is for Trump to be reined in by the one government branch that has the authority to do so. While Congress is usually deferential to a president’s foreign policy, Trump is so irrational and dangerous that the House and Senate must reassert their power to check the executive branch. If Congress were willing to step up to the plate, they could restrain Trump’s war-making abilities and the other accoutrements of the imperial presidency.
This is easier said than done, given the GOP’s control of both chambers. But there are signs that many Republicans are as unhappy with Trump’s foreign policy as Democrats are. If Corker is worried about “chaos” under Trump, then he and his caucus need to do more than hope that Tillerson or any other secretary of state will keep diplomatic anarchy at bay. They need to fulfill their constitutional duty to control a reckless executive.