As It Happens

Rex Tillerson was 'a truly awful secretary of state,' says former State Department adviser

Eliot Cohen doesn't know why U.S. President Donald Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday, but he's not surprised it happened.
Rex Tillerson has been fired as the U.S. secretary of state. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Eliot Cohen doesn't know why U.S. President Donald Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday, but he's not surprised it happened.

The former U.S. State Department adviser predicted in a December 2017 Atlantic article that CIA Director Mike Pompeo would soon replace Tillerson, who he called "a disaster."

That's exactly what happened Tuesday, when Trump abruptly announced on Twitter that Tillerson is out and Pompeo is in. 

Cohen, who served under former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, spoke to As it Happens host Carol Off about this latest shuffle in Washington. 

What do you think finally pushed Trump over the edge [to] fire Rex Tillerson?

It's been very clear for quite awhile that he didn't care for Tillerson.

But I'm not sure that there was particular trigger to any of this. This was coming sooner or later.

Tillerson, left, listens as U.S. President Donald Trump holds a cabinet meeting at the White House on Oct. 16, 2017. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

I suppose a better question is how did Rex Tillerson last so long?

Clearly, President Trump is willing to fire people. I think he much prefers that they resign, and so I think there was a certain amount of cowardice that's mixed in with his caprice.

So I think he just does not care about doing these gracefully and is actually not capable of doing these things particularly gracefully.

Well, you'd think that if he could have survived suggesting that Mr. Trump is "a moron," that he could survive a lot.

You would think. And, of course, he refused to deny that he had said that.

'We disagreed on things': Donald Trump tells media why Rex Tillerson is out

4 years ago
Donald Trump speaks about his relationship with Mike Pompeo and the dismissal of Rex Tillerson 0:44

Let's talk about Rex Tillerson's record, because you wrote a piece in December in which ... you called Rex Tillerson "the worst secretary of state in living memory." Was he really that bad?

There have been plenty of other secretaries of state who have had presidents with whom they didn't get along. There were plenty of other secretaries of state who were ineffective as diplomats or had cockamamie ideas about international politics.

But what Tillerson did was to really try and take a wrecking ball to his own department. And that was beyond even what yielding to the requirements of Donald Trump would have suggested.

He's done an enormous amount of destruction to the basic infrastructure of the State Department and there's been this incredible exodus of mid- and senior-level diplomats. They haven't filled most of the senior positions. He tried to run it with an absolutely tiny and not particularly competent staff. 

Those are self-inflicted wounds.

I think he was a truly awful secretary of state.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo will take on Tillerson's post in the State Department. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

But wouldn't he be an awful secretary of state who would appeal to Donald Trump, who is an isolationist and is enamoured with dictators?

Tillerson is not an isolationist. I think that actually the substance of his views are kind of foreign policy establishment mainstream, more or less, to the extent that he has them.

What he didn't know how to do was, say, to do what [Defence Secretary James] Mattis has been able to do, which is, for example, to reassure European allies somewhat. Or, I would even say, to reassure Canadians.

But he was pretty tight with our foreign affairs minister, and that was one of his selling points as far as Canada is concerned. 

What you would want in that setting, as somebody who as a public persona dealing with the press and experts and pundit, could somehow, without directly contradicting the president, make it clear that no, we haven't gone completely crazy and it's still the same old United States that you've been dealing with before.

And he was not able to do that. Pompeo, as a politician, may be more able to do that.

You said that the people who survive are those who learn how to manipulate Mr. Trump's vanity, his hatreds, his sensitivities, and that's how you have to deal with him. Do you think Mike Pompeo will be better at that?

Yes, I do. He's clearly established some some of rapport with him over the president's daily brief. He is a shrewd politician. To do that you have to have some manipulative skills.

And let's face it, it's not that hard to read Donald Trump and it's not that hard to feed Trump the kind of things that he likes and at least affect the manner that he responds to.

The question is: What is the larger price we pay for a cabinet of sycophants, even if they're manipulative sycophants? 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Associated Press. Interview produced by Chris Harbord.


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