For a moment, it looked like Donald Trump might have lost heart. On Saturday, well-sourced reporters were indicating that the president-elect’s appointment of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state was imminent. But then things went quiet. Trump tweeted noncommittal praise but made no announcement. Meanwhile, some leading Republicans began voicing concerns about the Exxon CEO’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Had the Saturday reports been a trial balloon that was shot down?
Apparently not. Early on Tuesday, Trump announced Tillerson as his nominee for secretary of state. The pick sets up a battle between the Trump administration and Republicans in the Senate—likely the biggest showdown so far, with ramifications that include not just the conduct of American foreign policy but also the shape of Trump’s relationship with the GOP-led Congress for the foreseeable future.
Like many of Trump’s picks, Tillerson has stunned observers, though not necessarily for the same reasons. He has no history of wild-eyed statements, like National Security Adviser-designate Michael Flynn, nor a declared agenda against his intended agency, like EPA Administrator-nominee Scott Pruitt, nor a self-declared inability to run a department and a total lack of experience in it, like Ben Carson, nominated to lead Housing and Urban Development. Tillerson is judged to be supremely competent, even by his harshest critics—too competent, they might say. But he also has no experience in diplomacy or government, a resume without precedent in the history of secretaries of state. (The closest analogue might be Bainbridge Colby, a close friend of Woodrow Wilson’s handed the job in 1920; his appointment “ran the gamut from puzzlement to outrage,” a Wilson biographer wrote, and Colby’s single year in office was undistinguished.)