Caught off-guard:

For­mer cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tive had de­nied ru­mors he would quit

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY ANNE GEARAN AND CAROL MORELLO anne.gearan@wash­post.com carol.morello@wash­post.com Dan Balz con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Af­ter a rough start and de­nials that he would quit, Rex Tiller­son seemed to be hit­ting his diplo­matic stride.

Rex Tiller­son spent a tu­mul­tuous year at the helm of the State Depart­ment, fre­quently un­der­cut by the pres­i­dent he dis­agreed with on key for­eign pol­icy is­sues and de­rided by many of his em­ploy­ees who blamed him for marginal­iz­ing their role and diplo­macy it­self.

But af­ter months of deny­ing he in­tended to re­sign, Tiller­son was ousted Tues­day just as he seemed to be hit­ting his diplo­matic stride. In re­cent weeks, he grew even more out­spo­ken in crit­i­ciz­ing Rus­sia, more con­fi­dent that his pa­tient pres­sure on North Korea was bear­ing fruit and more com­fort­able that he would out­last his many crit­ics in the West Wing.

In the end, no one was more sur­prised that Tiller­son was fired than Tiller­son him­self. As re­cently as Mon­day night, while he was fly­ing back from a week-long trip to Africa, an aide said Tiller­son was stay­ing put.

In a state­ment from a top aide about five hours af­ter his plane landed at Joint Base An­drews about 4 a.m., Tiller­son made clear that the gulf be­tween the me­thod­i­cal for­mer cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tive and the mer­cu­rial pres­i­dent was as wide as ever.

“The sec­re­tary did not speak to the pres­i­dent, and is un­aware of the rea­son,” said Steve Gold­stein, the un­der­sec­re­tary of pub­lic diplo­macy who was him­self quickly fired for con­tra­dict­ing the White House.

Clearly shaken, his voice thin, Tiller­son ap­peared at a State Depart­ment podium shortly af­ter 2 p.m. to read a state­ment thank­ing col­leagues and ty­ing up some ad­min­is­tra­tive de­tails.

He thanked the Amer­i­can peo­ple “for your de­vo­tion to a free and open so­ci­ety; to acts of kind­ness to­ward one an­other; to hon­esty and the quiet hard work that you do ev­ery day.”

He did not thank Pres­i­dent Trump in­di­vid­u­ally, or even men­tion him be­yond say­ing that Trump had called him two hours be­fore.

Tiller­son’s fir­ing caps a rough cou­ple of weeks. His fa­ther died Feb. 25. Two days af­ter re­turn­ing to Washington from the fu­neral, he de­parted on his trip to Africa, where he was side­lined for a day by ill­ness.

His de­par­ture fol­lowed months of dis­agree­ments with the White House over staffing and ad­min­is­tra­tive mat­ters at the State Depart­ment. But what may have done him in was a fa­tal dis­con­nect over what Trump saw as Tiller­son’s con­ven­tional ap­proach to pol­icy mat­ters.

In pick­ing Rex Wayne Tiller­son to head the State Depart­ment, Trump told as­so­ciates he wanted a sec­re­tary of state who looked the part. He liked Tiller­son’s cam­er­aready im­age and acer­bic Texas drawl, real as barbed wire from a man who was named af­ter two 1950s West­ern movie stars, Rex Allen and John Wayne. He also liked Tiller­son’s ré­sumé as chair­man and chief ex­ec­u­tive of ExxonMo­bil.

But the two men, who did not know one an­other be­fore Trump’s elec­tion, never clicked. For Tiller­son, de­spite weekly lunches and fre­quent phone calls, Trump re­mained un­pre­dictable and some­times in­scrutable. For Trump, Tiller­son em­bod­ied “es­tab­lish­ment” naysay­ers.

Tiller­son has no sin­gu­lar for­eign pol­icy cause or achieve­ment to his credit, but he had worked to open the door to talks with North Korea. Although Trump dis­mis­sively said last year that Tiller­son was wast­ing his time try­ing to reach out to “Lit­tle Rocket Man,” as he dubbed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the sum­mit that Trump agreed to last week is partly born of Tiller­son’s ef­forts.

Fur­ther un­der­cut­ting Tiller­son, sev­eral ma­jor for­eign pol­icy en­deav­ors, such as Is­raeli-Pales­tinian peace talks, were taken away from the State Depart­ment and handed to Trump ad­viser and son-in-law Jared Kush­ner.

A part of Tiller­son’s legacy is push­back on Trump poli­cies that Tiller­son con­sid­ered un­wise, bat­tles he did not of­ten win. He ad­vised Trump to keep the United States in the Paris cli­mate agree­ment and the 2015 Iran nu­clear deal, which Trump has threat­ened to re­nounce this spring.

Tiller­son also op­posed the uni­lat­eral de­ci­sion to rec­og­nize Jerusalem as Is­rael’s cap­i­tal and move the em­bassy there. Although he signed doc­u­ments last week au­tho­riz­ing the ren­o­va­tion of a con­sulate, a rel­a­tively mod­est step that the­o­ret­i­cally could be re­versed in the fu­ture, he made clear that se­cu­rity — not pol­i­tics — was his first con­cern.

There was an el­e­ment of an­ti­cli­max to Tiller­son’s exit. Much of his ten­ure was dogged by ru­mors that he was fed up and ready to quit, or about to be pushed out. The ru­mors were per­sis­tent enough to spawn the word “Rexit.”

Tiller­son con­sis­tently and wearily de­nied it. In Jan­uary, he told CNN he would still be around at the end of 2018.

His exit leaves De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis, na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser H.R. McMaster, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and CIA Di­rec­tor Mike Pom­peo as the most prom­i­nent for­eign pol­icy voices apart from Kush­ner.

Trump said Tues­day that with his nom­i­na­tion of Pom­peo to be­come sec­re­tary of state, he will be “get­ting close” to the Cabi­net he wants and that he hopes to have the changes in place be­fore his sum­mit with Kim Jong Un.

Tiller­son emerged as one of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s strong­est voices crit­i­cal of Rus­sia.

On Mon­day, Tiller­son told re­porters trav­el­ing with him that he was “very, very con­cerned” with Rus­sia’s grow­ing ag­gres­sion. In his farewell ad­dress Tues­day, he warned that Rus­sia is headed to­ward greater in­ter­na­tional iso­la­tion, “a sit­u­a­tion which is not in any­one’s in­ter­ests.”

Tiller­son was fired just two months be­fore Trump must de­cide whether to reim­pose nu­clear-re­lated sanc­tions on Iran as he has said he is in­clined to do, ef­fec­tively with­draw­ing from the mul­ti­lat­eral agree­ment. Tiller­son’s de­par­ture sug­gests that Trump is al­ready out the door on the Iran nu­clear deal.

“The big­gest prob­lem for Sec­re­tary Tiller­son is that the pres­i­dent has not been sup­port­ive of him at key junc­tures,” said R. Nicholas Burns, a for­mer top diplo­mat.

“Pres­i­dent Trump, frankly, didn’t give him the pub­lic sup­port he needed to be a suc­cess,” Burns said.

Nor did Tiller­son have broad sup­port within the State Depart­ment. Dozens of se­nior of­fi­cials have re­tired or been edged out since Tiller­son took over, leav­ing many em­ploy­ees feel­ing de­mor­al­ized and adrift.

Tiller­son and his small cir­cle of aides of­ten found them­selves at odds with Trump aides.

Tiller­son had launched a man­age­ment over­haul at the State Depart­ment that is pro­jected to take years, to the an­noy­ance of some se­nior White House of­fi­cials ea­ger to dis­pense po­lit­i­cal pa­tron­age jobs.

Tiller­son, in turn, was an­noyed at the lay­ers of bu­reau­cracy and what he saw as con­tin­ued chaos and in­ep­ti­tude months into the new ad­min­is­tra­tion, peo­ple fa­mil­iar with his think­ing said.

Tiller­son also com­plained to friends about com­pet­ing power cen­ters and a cul­ture of back­stab­bing that is very dif­fer­ent from the top-down cor­po­rate cul­ture he left. That same cor­po­rate ex­pe­ri­ence gave Tiller­son a back­ground in the sen­si­tiv­i­ties and de­mands of a large and di­verse work­force, and ap­peared to in­form his dis­agree­ment with Trump over last year’s white su­prem­a­cist ral­lies in Char­lottesville.

Af­ter Trump as­serted that “many sides” were to blame for the vi­o­lence, Tiller­son point­edly re­marked, “We do not honor, nor do we pro­mote or ac­cept, hate speech in any form.”

JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASHINGTON POST

MARK SCHIEFELBEIN/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son’s plane ar­rives in Beijing in March 2017. Tiller­son has no sin­gu­lar for­eign pol­icy cause to his credit but had worked to open the door to talks with North Korea.

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