It took five words from U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to prompt a collective gasp from those in Washington who spend their Sunday mornings watching the morning talk shows, as well as speculation about how quickly he’d depart the Trump administration. But Tillerson’s future, Axios reported, was in question well before he told Chris Wallace, the Fox News Sunday host, that “the president speaks for himself” when responding to a question about Trump’s values and his response to the white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville.
Axios quoted Trump saying, “Rex just doesn’t get it, he’s totally establishment in his thinking,” citing examples ranging from differences over Qatar’s dispute with its neighbors (Trump has called Qatar the biggest supporter of terrorism in the Middle East; Tillerson supports the monarchy); the Iran nuclear deal (which Tillerson has urged Trump to keep and which the president has called the worst deal in history); and sanctions on Venezuela (which the U.S. imposed last Friday over the State Department’s objections).
In one sense, the kinds of differences of opinion described are characteristic of the kinds of bureaucratic disputes the White House and the State Department have indulged for decades, even if it’s rare for the disputes to be aired so publicly. As far back as 1983, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who headed the National Security Council under President Jimmy Carter, wrote of the conflict between President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state and the NSC, noting: “Recent years have seen a full measure not only of the traditional conflict between the State and Defense Departments but of the newer conflict between State and the N.S.C. for pre-eminence in the making of foreign policy.” That was true during the Obama years, when the NSC kept a famously tight grip on foreign policy, and it’s true in the Trump administration, as the pre-eminent maker of foreign policy is even more a source of confusion, given competing power centers within the Trump White House plus disaffection within the State Department.