The Memo: Tillerson Flap Puts Spotlight On Trump’s Foreign Policy Moves!
The furor this week over whether Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called President Trump a “moron” is the most dramatic example yet of an administration to which normal rules do not apply. Tensions between Trump and Tillerson are an open secret in Washington, with the president seemingly undercutting his secretary of State on several issues, notably North Korea. Tillerson has bridled at his treatment, according to multiple reports, including from NBC News.
NBC reported this week that Tillerson had been on the verge of resigning this summer and that he had called the president a moron after a July 20 meeting. The news outlet reported Thursday that the secretary of State was summoned to the White House as officials tried to respond to fallout from the initial report, which reportedly infuriated the president.
At a news conference Wednesday, Tillerson denied he had ever considered leaving but declined to respond to questions about whether he called the president a moron. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert later denied that Tillerson had used the term. The incident shined a spotlight onto some of the broader consternation among members of the American foreign policy establishment and international diplomats regarding Trump’s administration.
In private conversations, foreign diplomats lament the lack of any semblance of orthodoxy coming out of the administration and fret about whether they can rely on what they are being told by U.S. officials. American diplomats from previous administrations say the possibility of Trump contradicting a previous position at a moment’s notice with a tweet can be a real issue.
“Part of the problem is that there is no meeting of minds,” said Charles Kupchan, who served on the National Security Council staff during the Obama and Clinton administrations.
“So when foreign officials speak to [Defense Secretary James] Mattis or Tillerson, they don’t know whether they are hearing Mattis’s view or Tillerson’s view or Trump’s view or somewhere in-between,” added Kupchan, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University.
This disconnect was evident once again on Thursday as reports emerged that Trump was moving toward decertifying Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal. On Tuesday, Mattis indicated that he felt the U.S. should stay on board with the 2015 agreement between Tehran and a handful of global leaders.
When Mattis was asked by Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing whether he thought retaining the deal was in the national security interests of the United States, the defense chief responded, “Yes, senator, I do.”
Other senior figures, including Tillerson and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, have indicated that they too believe that Tehran is adhering to the terms of the deal. Since taking office, Trump has twice certified Iran’s compliance with the deal. But that is likely to change next week, according to reports from The Washington Post and other outlets Thursday. Samantha Power, who served as ambassador to the United Nations during the Obama administration, was among those who drew attention to the apparent internal divisions. Veteran diplomats from other countries also expressed consternation at the administration’s approach, both on the Iran deal and in more general terms.
“You’ve got a situation where messages are put out strongly moving in one direction, and then they’re reconditioned and moved in another direction by other officials. It makes the job of a diplomat difficult,” said Paul Webster Hare, a British diplomat for 30 years and who now teaches at Boston University.
The Iran deal’s possible unravelling, Hare argued, showed “why it is important to keep the norms and keep the international consensus-building and work with partners,” even when such work is difficult. Still, Trump derided the deal as an “embarrassment” during his address to the United Nations General Assembly last month. Amid reports that his administration will decertify Iran’s compliance, Trump told reporters on Thursday that a decision would be coming “very shortly.”
If he does decertify the Iran deal, it will be far from the first time he has broken with other senior members of the administration. In June, Tillerson called on several Arab nations, led by Saudi Arabia, to ease a blockade of Qatar. Within hours, Trump contradicted that position at a news conference in the White House Rose Garden, saying that the Saudi position was “hard but necessary.”
Last week, Tillerson had said that the the administration was “probing” how the U.S. and North Korea might move toward formal talks, saying, “We have lines of communications to Pyongyang – we’re not in a dark situation, a blackout.”
Trump, using his favorite nickname for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, sent tweets on Sunday breaking with his secretary of State’s comments.
“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” the president wrote.
The incident was just the latest in a series where Trump and Tillerson have appeared to be on different pages.
“Mr. Tillerson has adopted positions on Qatar, Iran, North Korea and even Russia that are contradicted or undercut by the president,” said Aaron David Miller, who advised both Republican and Democratic secretaries of State on Arab-Israeli negotiations for a quarter-century, beginning in 1978.
“I think it is highly unconventional and I would argue that it is largely dysfunctional,” Miller, now Middle East program director at the Wilson Center, added.
The White House denies that the president had undermined Tillerson or other Cabinet officials, with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Thursday calling such a premise “absolutely ridiculous.”
“The president can’t undercut his own Cabinet. The president is the leader of the Cabinet. He sets the tone, he sets the agenda,” she said.
But the unpredictability of that tone and agenda is something that unnerves many observers.
“It’s a problem for the world,” said Kupchan, “because the world doesn’t know what the United States is going to do next.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.