Tillerson made a mess at State, but his departure leaves Trump “unleashed”

“We’re going to see a Trump foreign policy unleashed now, in a way that it had been tempered and moderated before.”

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson diminished the organization he led during the first year of President Donald Trump’s administration while fending off personal attacks from his own president.

Now, he’s passing a weakened institution to a man with no diplomatic record, who observers said appears far less likely to restrain Trump’s most controversial and erratic foreign policy positions: CIA chief Mike Pompeo.


“We’re going to see a Trump foreign policy unleashed now, in a way that it had been tempered and moderated before,” Hady Amr, a former senior diplomat in president Barack Obama’s State Department, told VICE News. “I think we’re quite likely to see some quite shocking moves going forward, unless Pompeo can temper Trump’s instincts.”

Pompeo will face the task of rebuilding an agency in which key senior positions and ambassadorships have gone unfilled for months amid a reorganization that never seemed to end. Former officials say they doubt Pompeo will be able to leverage his closer alignment with Trump to revive the beleaguered department that's already lost many of its most experienced career diplomats.

“The firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will leave the State Department a shell of its former self,” Michael Kimmage, who served on the Secretary's Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State under President Barack Obama told VICE News. “The capacity of the next Secretary of State to employ the department's resources and to place these resources behind effective policies will be minimal, whatever his relationship with the president.”

“Pompeo risks dragging U.S. diplomacy into the world of intelligence.”

Tillerson frequently found himself at odds with Trump not just over how to handle global hotspots, but also other issues, like the Paris accord on global warming, or trade policy.


“Tillerson advised sticking with the Paris climate agreement, staying in the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, preserving the Iran nuclear accord, being tough with Russia over Ukraine, and toning down the rhetoric on North Korea,” Anthony Blinken, who served as both Deputy Secretary of State then and Deputy National Security Advisor under Obama, told VICE News.

“Now, our partners will know that Pompeo speaks for the president. But they are not likely to appreciate what they hear,” Blinken said.

Others said the run-down condition of the State Department may provide Pompeo with a chance to remake the department’s mission — with potentially “dangerous” results. Brett Bruen, director of Global Engagement in Obama’s White House, pointed to Pompeo’s lack of experience as a diplomat and more recent background in intelligence operations as cause for concern.

“Our diplomatic staff, structure and strategy have been so badly depleted in the last year, there's a real risk that the department gets remade under Pompeo to perform functions that are far outside of the realm of state-to-state relations,” Bruen told VICE News. “Pompeo risks dragging U.S. diplomacy into the world of intelligence. He has no background in foreign policy and stealing secrets is a lot different than influencing other world leaders.”

Tillerson’s restraining influence was seen, for example, in the fact that Trump certified Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement on two occasions — despite railing against it on the campaign trail.


“I did always view Tillerson as a counterbalance to the president, and I think we lose that because Mike Pompeo, I believe, thinks and talks more like the president,” Michael Hayden, who served as CIA chief for former president George W. Bush, told intelligence journal The Cipher Brief.

Indeed, one of Tillerson’s last acts as America’s top diplomat was to slam Russia for “likely” poisoning a former Russian intelligence officer in England earlier this month — after the White House held back from supporting America’s closest ally, Britain, when British Prime Minister Theresa May voiced the same conclusion on Monday.

Read: UK points finger at Russia for poisoned spy, Trump stays mum

Hayden and Strobe Talbott, Bill Clinton's trusted advisor on Russia, both said they thought Tillerson’s tougher response toward Moscow over the poisoned spy may have been the last straw for Tillerson’s relationship with Trump.

“While the Tillerson firing has yet to be authoritatively explained, circumstances suggest that POTUS canned his SecState for supporting May’s claim that Russia committed murder in the UK,” Talbott tweeted. “If so, Trump is, yet again, siding with Putin against a key ally.”

Tillerson's weakened position and his habit of taking positions at odds with his boss ultimately proved a lethal combo, observers said.

“He didn’t do anything for the organization and the White House didn’t take him seriously,” said John Sipher, a CIA career professional. “He’ll be thought of as one of the worst Secretaries of State ever.”

The Trump administration’s disregard for traditional foreign policy approaches, consistent positions and engagement with multilateral bodies and treaties is likely to have a lasting, negative impact on U.S. standing in the world, Amr warned.

“The more erratic the White House becomes, the less thoughtful we become, the less power we’re going to have,” Amr said. “And it’s not even clear the next president will get that back.”

Cover image: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson steps away from the podium after speaking at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, Tuesday, March 13, 2018.