To grasp the significance of Donald Trump’s decision to replace Rex Tillerson with Mike Pompeo, it’s worth remembering how Tillerson became secretary of state in the first place. He got the job, in large measure, because Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates urged Trump to hire him. Rice and Gates knew Tillerson because they both consulted for his company, Exxon, and because Tillerson sat alongside Gates on the board of the Boy Scouts. In explaining the logic behind pushing for Tillerson, Rice told The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins that, “This president doesn’t trust the foreign-policy establishment. A businessman who has made big oil deals—we thought that would be something that Trump would be comfortable with.”
Tillerson, in other words, was a Trojan horse. Rice and Gates figured that Trump would focus on the externals. He’d see Tillerson as a deal-making, alpha male, rich guy like himself. They may also have suspected what some Trump advisers later confirmed: That Trump thought Tillerson looked like a secretary of state.
But Rice and Gates knew that, under the surface, Tillerson shared their worldview. From his time at Exxon, he had learned to put ideology aside and manage relationships with governments as diverse as Russia’s, Mexico’s, and Qatar’s. He had participated in a business group that generally opposed the economic sanctions that impeded U.S. corporations, including against Iran. Under his leadership, Exxon had acknowledged that human activity was contributing to climate change and endorsed the Paris climate change accord. During the primaries, Tillerson had contributed to Jeb Bush.