This week, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired. While Tillerson’s political demise won’t be mourned at the State Department that he helped decimated in an unprecedented manner, one can still almost feel sorry for him. The former CEO of ExxonMobil, once at the helm of a sprawling business empire, was unceremoniously tossed aside as America’s top diplomat by a Trump tweet, of which only a single sentence was dedicated to Tillerson’s termination:
While it has long been rumoured that Tillerson was not going to last long in his position- indeed, it’s a wonder how he’s lasted this long- the circumstances of his firing are exceptional. It’s the first case in US history where a member of the cabinet has been fired through Twitter.
The White House attempted to claim that Tillerson had already been told the previous week that he was being fired, but this was immediately contradicted by a statement from the State Department itself, which said “The Secretary had every intention of staying because of the critical progress made in national security”. It was said that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told Tillerson “You may get a tweet”. Tillerson only learned definitively of his firing when he saw Trump’s tweet after landing back in Washington D.C from a trip to Africa.
So many of Trump’s outrages have numbed us to all the extraordinary things his administration does on a daily basis. In fact, there are many more outrageous things that Trump does that I have not had time to write about; if I were to write about every Trump outrage, my blog (and mental health) would be in a sorry state indeed. But I want to single out Trump’s treatment of Tillerson as just one major example of his cruelty.
Trump has never had an easy relationship with Tillerson. They never had personal chemistry; Trump merely chose Tillerson on the spot after interviewing him because he thought Tillerson would look like a good secretary of state on TV, and because he admired rich business leaders (like himself). Trump and Tillerson clashed on various issues, from the Paris climate agreement to the Iran nuclear deal, and Tillerson, never a yes-man, would simply say to Trump: “it’s your deal”. It was reported that on his state visit to China, Trump ordered Tillerson to eat his salad.
But regardless of what their relationship was like, it provides no justification for how Trump ultimately treated Tillerson. Even low-level employees in a small business are not fired via tweet; to fire a cabinet secretary using Twitter seems like an intentional public humiliation. How difficult would it have been for Trump to call Tillerson first to tell him that he would like to ask Tillerson to resign, or even to ask John Kelly to do it (in a manner that is more direct than, “you may get a tweet”)? And even if Trump did choose to humiliate Tillerson on purpose, why did he choose to do it? What good does kicking a man when he is down serve the president or his public image?
Indeed, Donald Trump is a case study in how not to treat your employees. His administration has the highest turnover rate in the past few decades, and for good reason. Job creation under Trump has happened not as a result of the GOP’s tax cut bill, but rather because of Trump’s terrible management of human resources. The president indulges in chaos, encourages factional in-fighting, listens to no one, publicly humiliates his staff and advisors, and finally terminates them not with a proper discussion but through Twitter. No wonder that the Trump White House is having trouble recruiting top talent; when people are treated as Trump does, why would anyone want to work in his administration?
Trump is continuing to indulge in his cruelty. Tillerson, for months, has been facing job insecurity, with constant rumours swirling around his immediate forced departure; attorney general Jeff Sessions continues in this predicament. Now, national security advisor H.R McMaster is on the line. The latest report is that McMaster will be fired (perhaps also through Twitter?), and the general is likewise in a state of uncertainty.
A contrary view was that Trump didn’t mean to humiliate Tillerson; rather, he didn’t have the guts to properly fire him. For a man whose show was based around him saying “You’re fired” to people, Trump has always had a difficult time with firing his real employees (and now, public servants) to their face. But what good is a president who can’t summon the courage to talk honestly with a secretary of state about why he should no longer serve in the administration?
Rex Tillerson was a terrible secretary of state. But in the circumstances of his firing at least, we can feel sorry for him.