Date: March 13th, 2018 3:43 PM
Author: Non sequitur
‘Rex, Eat the Salad’: Inside the Awkward Relationship Between Rex Tillerson and Donald Trump
Cabinet post was a sharp change for a former Exxon Mobil CEO who was used to calling the shots
Rex Tillerson’s appointment as secretary of state brought a globe-trotting executive to Washington to work for the first businessman president.
Rex Tillerson’s appointment as secretary of state brought a globe-trotting executive to Washington to work for the first businessman president. PHOTO: BAO DANDAN/ZUMA PRESS
By Michael C. Bender and Felicia Schwartz
March 13, 2018 1:22 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON—In a private room in China’s Great Hall of the People in November, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sat with President Donald Trump and other U.S. officials as their hosts delivered plates of wilted Caesar salad.
Mr. Trump, in the midst of a five-country tour of Asia, grew concerned the untouched greens would offend the Chinese, according to people familiar with the matter. So he ordered Mr. Tillerson to start. “Rex,” he said, “eat the salad.”
Mr. Tillerson laughed off the remark, but the moment illustrated the at-times awkward relationship between the secretary of state and his boss that came to an abrupt end Tuesday when Mr. Trump announced in a tweet that he had replaced him.
Initially, Mr. Trump brimmed with enthusiasm about the arrival in his cabinet of a seasoned executive, the chairman and chief executive of oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp.
While he had first considered other candidates—former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney—the new president was sold on Mr. Tillerson by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Harold Hamm, an oil billionaire and GOP donor, according to people familiar with the matter.
“Man, when there was a big find in a country, nobody had a chance when Rex went in to get it—Rex would go in, and it would be over,” Mr. Hamm told the incoming president, said one person familiar with the conversation.
“That’s what we want!” Mr. Trump replied.
Mr. Tillerson’s appointment brought a globe-trotting executive to Washington to work for the first businessman president. But soon Mr. Tillerson found himself in an awkward place: roiling a massive diplomatic bureaucracy with a proposal to slash its $55-billion budget by almost 40%, yet distant from the White House he reported in to.
A spokesman for Mr. Tillerson declined to comment.
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Early in the administration, Mr. Tillerson tried to bridge Foggy Bottom and Pennsylvania Avenue by seeking to hold occasional meetings of the president’s National Security Council at the State Department, according to a person familiar with the discussion. The request was rejected. And inside the White House, the former chief executive found himself crossing a trio of staffers who hadn’t yet been born when he started his climb at Exxon in 1975.
Mr. Tillerson, 65 years old, clashed on immigration policy in front of the president with Stephen Miller, the president’s 32-year-old policy adviser. After one correction from Mr. Miller, Mr. Tillerson barked so aggressively at the West Wing aide that the president suggested his secretary of state might have crossed the line, according to a person familiar with the exchange.
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Johnny DeStefano, the 38-year-old in charge of White House personnel, helped scuttle several of Mr. Tillerson’s appointments, according to officials. And control over major diplomatic priorities was always muddled, with Jared Kushner, the president’s 37-year-old son-in-law and senior adviser, taking the lead on Middle East peace talks.
A promise from Mr. Trump during the transition that Mr. Tillerson could pick his own staff almost immediately fell through. Nor was Mr. Tillerson a central part of the decision-making process on the White House’s original proposed travel ban or on expanding the so-called “Mexico City policy,” which bars foreign organizations that receive U.S. aid from providing abortion services, officials said.
It was all a sharp change for an executive who was used to calling the shots at Exxon.
“As chief executive, you’re in charge. As an agency head, you’re sort of in charge,” said Steven Goldstein, a former executive at TIAA who was undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs until he, too, was ousted Tuesday.
President Trump at a state dinner in China in November.
President Trump at a state dinner in China in November. PHOTO: PE/POOL/EPA-EFE/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK/EPA/SHUTTERSTOCK
The secretary has also bewildered White House aides with his unwillingness to engage the media.
“I don’t need to talk just to be talking, OK? I’m not a media hog,” Mr. Tillerson said in an October interview with The Wall Street Journal, when asked why he had given relatively few interviews during his first year in office. “I don’t need facial recognition. I don’t need voice recognition. I don’t need a lot of quotes. So, for me, it’s when it’s useful to talk, let’s talk.”
Rumors that Mr. Tillerson wasn’t long for the job have circulated since the summer and intensified over the fall when he was quoted as calling the president a “moron.” The two men’s relationship appeared to improve on the Asia trip in early November. Mr. Trump, however, continued to complain privately about Mr. Tillerson, people familiar with the discussions said.
Despite a rocky tenure, Mr. Tillerson helped carry out Mr. Trump’s campaign of “maximum pressure” on North Korea, raising the issue in many meetings with foreign officials, sometimes as specifically as pointing to certain ships or transactions the U.S. found problematic. More than 20 countries took action, such as closing embassies and kicking out North Korean guest workers during his tenure.
He was also responsible for a warming of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, which paved the way for the first trip by a Saudi foreign minister to Baghdad in years, officials said.
Mr. Tillerson additionally helped to negotiate a cease-fire zone with Russia and Jordan in southwest Syria, though officials warned earlier this week that the zone might be in danger amid violence there.
Still, the former Exxon Mobil chief executive struggled to appeal to career officials at the State Department, some of whom felt that Mr. Tillerson often ignored their policy advice. Many senior staff have departed and several top positions that require Senate confirmation remain vacant.
About one-third of the 152 key positions at the State Department requiring Senate confirmation have no nominee. Of 28 undersecretary and assistant secretary posts that run much of the building, only 10 are confirmed. The Trump administration hasn’t nominated anyone to fill many of the remaining posts.
As Mr. Tillerson approached the one-year mark last month, aides close to him declared him “the Secretary of Stay,” reflecting their belief that he appeared to have survived the tensions. But as the White House gears up for important diplomatic initiatives, including Mr. Trump’s agreement to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the president decided it was time for a change, according to officials.
White House chief of staff John Kelly awoke Mr. Tillerson late Friday night while he was on a trip to Africa to let him know he would likely soon be fired, officials said. Mr. Tillerson cut the trip short and returned to Washington early Tuesday. Shortly after Mr. Trump tweeted that he had installed CIA Director Mike Pompeo as secretary of state and thanked Mr. Tillerson for his service, an aide alerted Mr. Tillerson that he had lost his job.