Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Donald Trump, who just fired him, were a terrible fit from day one. It’s pointless to seek a more profound truth here, as media boffins will insist on doing. The news doesn’t show that business leaders are unfit for government service, though it does illustrate the old observation that if they choose to serve, they’ll probably be miserable. The larger, worrying trend is that after Gary Cohn’s resignation as Trump’s chief economic adviser, the administration in one week has lost two of its most substantial members.
The bad fit should have been obvious. Tillerson has a habit of saying what he thinks, which guaranteed collisions with his impulsive, distractible boss. As Exxon’s CEO for a decade he built a reputation in the business world as a blunt talker who sticks to his guns. Calling him an Eagle Scout is no metaphor; he was one and later was president of the Boy Scouts of America. When Trump said he wanted to bail out of the nuclear arms treaty with Iran, Tillerson said he didn’t want to. When Trump initially did not condemn the white supremacists whose rally in Charlottesville became deadly, Tillerson said, “The president speaks for himself,” distancing himself from Trump in a way that shocked the foreign policy establishment. It probably didn’t help when Tillerson was reported to have privately called Trump a “moron” and, sticking to his guns, didn’t deny it.
Most notably, when Tillerson said last October that he was trying to start a dialogue with North Korea, Trump publicly rebuked him, tweeting that Tillerson was “wasting his time…. Save your energy, Rex.” Then last week, when Trump reversed course, agreeing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, he didn’t consult with Tillerson beforehand or personally inform him afterward.
It was a relationship made in hell.
Business leaders have long and rightly been wary of government service. “Which CEOs have gone to Washington and come back with their reputation improved?” a prominent CEO asked me when he was offered a post in George W. Bush’s cabinet. He could think of just one—former Goldman Sachs chief Robert Rubin, who was Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary in the late 1990s—and declined Bush’s offer.
That was then. The Trump administration is in a class by itself and seems unlikely to attract any prominent CEO after publicly undercutting Cohn and Tillerson. Trump made a telling comment in explaining to reporters why he fired Tillerson. They “disagreed on things… the Iran deal. So we were not thinking the same,” he said. Many top leaders prize subordinates with the courage to disagree and argue their position. Trump does not. He emphasized why he chose Tillerson’s proposed successor, CIA chief Mike Pompeo: “We have a similar thought process.”
Trump added a comment with which Tillerson will surely agree: “Rex will be much happier now.”