The tweet came shortly after Rex Tillerson returned from his debut trip to Africa, on March 13, 2018: “Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State,” President Donald Trump wrote. “He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!”
Tillerson was the first Cabinet official ever to be fired on social media; Trump only got around to calling him some three hours later. The sequence appeared to be a calculated snub: Trump had come to dislike Tillerson, who’d called him a “moron.” John Kelly, then the president’s chief of staff, later made a point of noting that Tillerson had been on the toilet when Kelly had phoned him in advance of Trump’s tweet to tell him that his dismissal was likely imminent.
No modern president has treated diplomacy, its institutions, and the people who run them with less care than Trump.
Tillerson’s dismissal brought to an end a tumultuous 14-month tenure, during which he was mostly loyal to Trump, moron or not. Tillerson oversaw depletion in the ranks of the State Department’s Foreign Service officers, imposed a hiring freeze, and supported a White House proposal to cut the department’s budget by about 30 percent. Worldwide, foreign diplomats struggled to find U.S. counterparts to discuss or coordinate policy. As of this writing, ambassadorial posts remain vacant in Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Turkey, and other countries.
Into the vacuum have poured Trump’s own desultory statements, often dispensed on Twitter. He has attacked the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, and Great Britain, to name just a handful of America’s crucial allies. He has contradicted himself and made grand pronouncements without follow-through. These actions have unquestionably weakened America’s ability to lead. The “special relationship” with Britain, for instance, is greatly eroded following Trump’s various slights against Prime Minister Theresa May. (After an attack in September 2017 on an underground train in London, Trump immediately criticized Britain’s counterterrorism methods. He retweeted anti-Muslim videos that had been shared by an ultraright British leader—prompting condemnation from May’s office and provoking the U.S. president to again rebuke her. In a now-infamous interview with The Sun, Trump trashed May’s Brexit plan during his visit to the United Kingdom.)
In many ways, Trump’s choice of Tillerson as his top diplomat was a harbinger of the unprecedented degradation in U.S. “soft power” that was about to come. The former Exxon Mobil CEO had no experience in government and managed to quickly alienate himself within the State Department through his standoffish management style. Mike Pompeo, who replaced Tillerson, has sought to rebuild morale, and has rebranded the State Department as the “Department of Swagger,” a rude image perhaps meant to appeal to a glandular president.
But Pompeo’s closer relationship with Trump hasn’t changed the president’s callous disregard for diplomacy, most recently illustrated by his abrupt announcement to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. Diplomacy, of course, requires certain qualities that go beyond swagger, or those that are even its opposites: patience; clarity of purpose; goodwill toward allies and steadfastness against foes; flexibility, yes, but also constancy and loyalty.
What the president lacks, the institutions around him might still provide—so went the theory upon Trump’s election. But only partially, it turns out. Month by month, outburst by outburst, tweet by tweet, the nation’s reputation—and its ability to influence world events—continues to sink.