A humiliated Tillerson paid the price for existing in Trump’s orbit
Rex Tillerson was the former CEO of energy giant ExxonMobil before he was the former secretary of state. Big jobs, both, and Tillerson looked and sounded every bit the corporate titan, with a leonine head framed by thinning white hair; chevron eyebrows; a soothing, basso Texas drawl; dark suits; and an easy self-assurance.
By the time Tillerson stood at a podium in the US state department briefing room on Tuesday, after being fired by the US President Donald Trump, he was a man so diminished and humiliated that he occasionally appeared to be out of breath, his voice shaky, his delivery dutiful and subdued.
After checking off a list of his accomplishments as secretary of state, Tillerson thanked everyone but Trump. "I’ll now return to private life as a private citizen," he said. "As a proud American. Proud of the opportunity I’ve had to serve my country." Then he left without taking any questions.
Tillerson is a reminder of the price some people pay for existing in Trump’s orbit. Trump, of course, is an unpredictable, self-absorbed and ill-informed manager, who thrives on playing people against one another while making sure that he occupies centre stage. If you don’t get with that programme — not a policy programme so much as a cult of personality — you’re shown the door.
Indignities are central to the experience. The Wall Street Journal shared an anecdote in its account of Tillerson’s firing about a state dinner in China in November. Trump and Tillerson were served apparently unappetising plates of salad. Tillerson left his untouched, causing the President to worry that their hosts might be offended. "Rex," Trump advised, "eat the salad."
Getting told to mind your greens is a mighty step down for someone like Tillerson, who undoubtedly was accustomed to the perks and respect that came with running a corporation atop the Fortune 500.
Tillerson didn’t manage the state department very effectively, and the executive skill set he was expected to bring to the agency went missing. Senior positions were left unfilled, phone calls from foreign diplomats went unreturned, morale suffered, and policy goals were haphazard.
But long before he was forced to walk the plank, Tillerson was also subjected to a form of ritual hazing from a trio of 30-somethings in the White House who the President has let run wild: policy adviser Stephen Miller; personnel chief Johnny DeStefano; and, of course, son-in-law and wunderkind Jared Kushner. On one occasion, the Journal reported, Tillerson was so insulted by Miller that he "barked" at him "aggressively".
It turns out that the sorcerer of The Apprentice, despite his reputation as the cold-blooded boss who made "You’re fired!" a catchphrase, lacks the spine to look his employees in their eyes when he lets them go
Trump chose Tillerson because, I suspect, he liked having someone in the White House who looked like a CEO from central casting — not because he thought he had anything to learn from him. Trump rarely thinks he has anything to learn from anyone, that’s why he’s built a weak team of advisers, even though he desperately needs advice. And that’s why he essentially runs the executive branch like the chaotic, one-man show that was the Trump Organisation.
The writer Michael Kruse, in this month’s Politico Magazine, offers a deft explanation of Trump’s understanding of loyalty. "In the 241-year history of the US, there’s never been a commander in chief who has thought about loyalty and attempted to use it and enforce it quite like Trump." In short, loyalty for the President is a one-way street.
Trump and Tillerson had a long series of policy disagreements that led to Tillerson’s ouster. Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, reportedly warned Tillerson on Friday, while the secretary of state was in Africa, that Trump planned to fire him if he didn’t resign. Tillerson not only didn’t resign, he diverged from the White House line when he said late on Monday that the recent murder of a former spy in London was a "really egregious act" that was "clearly" the work of Russians.
Meanwhile, press secretary Sarah Sanders went out of her way to avoid saying the word "Russia" when repeatedly asked by reporters about who the White House believed was behind the London murder.
Sanders still has a job, Tillerson does not.
The president fired Tillerson the same way he fired FBI director James Comey — while the employee was out of town. It turns out that the sorcerer of The Apprentice, despite his reputation as the cold-blooded boss who made "You’re fired!" a catchphrase, lacks the spine to look his employees in their eyes when he lets them go. Tillerson found out he was sacked, apparently, via one of Trump’s favourite mediums: Twitter.
"Let me tell you what I’ve learned about this President," Tillerson said in October, during a press conference in which he pushed back against reports that he had called Trump a moron, without explicitly denying that he had. "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. Accountability is one of the bedrock values the President and I share."
Tillerson may not have believed much of what he was saying back then. But if he did, he just learned exactly how this President thinks about accountability. Anyone else looking for a job with Team Trump should take note.
• This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and/or its owners.
• Timothy L O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Gadfly and Bloomberg View. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.