When Fox News host Chris Wallace asked Rex Tillerson on Sunday whether Donald Trump’s rhetoric about Charlottesville reflected American values, his response was terse: “The president speaks for himself.” The secretary of state had already been on deteriorating terms with the president, who has frequently undercut and overtaken his job. It was a clarifying moment for both men. With those five words, the former ExxonMobil chief drove a shaft of daylight between himself and the president, joining the ranks of other C.E.O.s who had repudiated Trump, and thrust his future at the State Department into uncertainty.
Tillerson has cut an unusually inconspicuous profile as America’s top diplomat. A reluctant secretary of state whose acceptance of the role was driven more by obligation than desire, Tillerson has relinquished authority on foreign policy and surrendered the spotlight to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser, and Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations. But what began as a strategic calculation has become an embarrassing spectacle. “Tillerson was playing the long game . . . he was ceding a lot of ground to Kushner and Haley and thought it would pay off in the long run,” one current State Department staffer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told me. “I think that he has seen that it has actually not paid off and it has made his job harder and I think Charlottesville was a turning point—but not for the reason that people think.”
Instead of leading the department’s international efforts, Tillerson has been focused on downsizing, working with consulting behemoths Deloitte and Insigniam to oversee a massive, top-to-bottom restructuring prompted by Trump’s calls to slash the agency’s budget. He has been criticized for isolating himself from veteran diplomats and concentrating decision-making in a tight-knit cadre of top advisers as dozens of critical ambassador and assistant undersecretary positions remain unfilled. While resentment builds at Foggy Bottom, Kushner and Haley have embarked on glory-hogging foreign-policy freelance projects.
A veteran of massive reorganizations at Exxon and the Boy Scouts of America, Tillerson is no stranger to the growing pains—or the media scrutiny—such overhauls can incite. But for Tillerson, Trump’s Charlottesville comments may have represented something else: a threat to his legacy. Had he still been C.E.O. of Exxon, he likely would have been among the business leaders who abandoned the president’s advisory councils in response to Trump’s claim that there were “very fine people” among the white nationalists protesting the removal of a Confederate statue. Instead, until Sunday, he remained silent while his corporate equals rebuked his boss. “The C.E.O.s that resigned from the different councils, that is actually Tillerson’s peer group . . . some of [whom] are his very close friends,” the current staffer said. “I think that kind of sunk in a little bit, like wait, history is going to judge legacies in the way that we respond to some of these big iconic events, right? And I think his response this weekend was emblematic of that . . . I think he thinks a lot about legacy, I think that is something that drives him.”
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