Rexit - It Was Only a Matter of Time

Rex Tillerson was a reasonable choice for Secretary of State although, it was fated to fail in the long run. Harry Melkonian
Harry Melkonian


The U.S. Secretary of State (equal to the Foreign Minister in Australia) is the most senior and respected member of Cabinet. George Washington’s pick as the first Secretary of State was Thomas Jefferson; not bad! There have been numerous distinguished Secretaries of State. President Truman appointed General George Marshall – the architect of the Marshall Plan to rebuild post-war Europe; President Kennedy appointed Rockefeller Foundation President Dean Rusk and, who can forget Dr Henry Kissinger who was Secretary of State for both Presidents Nixon and Ford. President Obama appointed Hillary Clinton.

There have been Presidents who required a superb Secretary of State while others wanted a bureaucrat to manage Foggy Bottom – as the State Department offices are nicknamed. Presidents Kennedy and Nixon enjoyed foreign affairs and managed foreign policy from the White House. Nixon’s original appointment, William P Rogers, was sidelined from the beginning and relegated to ceremonial tasks while Nixon, aided by his National Security Advisor Kissinger, handled diplomacy. On the other hand, Presidents Truman, Johnson, Clinton and Obama focused on domestic affairs and relied on their Secretaries of State to set and implement policy. In President Johnson’s case, this proved disastrous as Dean Rusk failed to see the folly of the Vietnam War.

Donald Trump was not experienced in foreign affairs or diplomacy when he entered the White House. Rex Tillerson was a reasonable choice for Secretary of State although, it was fated to fail in the long run. Tillerson was Chair and a highly capable CEO of Exxon-Mobil, a multi-national corporation and one of the world’s largest oil and gas company with operations virtually everywhere. Tillerson had broad experience in dealing with oligarchs, dictators and monarchs given the sources of oil in Russia, Venezuela, Nigeria, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Tillerson knew all of the players and how to deal with them. Tillerson seemed ideal for Secretary of State. Tillerson was the opposite of Trump in that he was an executive of a widely-owned public company and not an entrepreneur. Temperamentally, they were polar opposites.

However, Trump needed someone like Tillerson at State to inject some order and stability. He applied his management principles of Exxon-Mobil as well as providing credibility to the Trump administration. In spite of this, Tillerson was undoubtedly arrogant, pompous and all-round annoying to Trump and was unable to conceal his views.. To Tillerson, the President was inept and lacking in capability to be an effective President.

When the President and a key cabinent member cannot get along, it is clear who must go. In the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, when President Kennedy confronted long-serving CIA chief Allan Dulles, Kennedy is reported to have said - "if this were Britain, you would stay, and I would go; but it isn’t, and, I stay, and you go!"

The method of Tillerson’s discharge was unorthodox and unsuitable. Tillerson found out via a colleague reading the President’s twitter while indisposed having contracted a bug while touring Africa.

But, before Trump is condemned for his apparently oafish behaviour, there is a sort of justice in Tillerson’s humiliation. Rex Tillerson, in my opinion, was arrogant and lacked respect for others. After all, Donald Trump is President, and members of the Cabinet owe fidelity to their President. Tillerson failed to show respect, and while Trump may have even welcomed this approach, he did not when it was applied to him.

There is a long recent history of confrontation between Exxon and the Rockefeller family concerning climate change. While Exxon Chair and CEO, Tillerson received correspondence from members of the Rockefeller family urging Exxon to pursue environmentally friendly energy development. Tillerson, apparently perceived as unsympathetic to climate change was also the target of a Rockefeller sponsored shareholders' resolution to strip Tillerson of his position as Exxon chair, leaving him in the role of CEO. David Rockefeller endorsed the resolutions and publicly stated that he supported his 'family’s efforts to sharpen Exxon Mobil’s focus on the environmental crisis facing all of us.' In response, Exxon accused the Rockefellers of being engaged in a ‘conspiracy’.

David Rockefeller died in 2017 at 101. At the time of his confrontations with Exxon and Tillerson, he was over 90 years old and had previously been the chair of Chase Manhattan Bank (now JP Morgan Chase) for many years. David Rockefeller was a pillar of New York civic life and philanthropy having given many millions to Rockefeller University, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, Harvard University, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. He was the sole surviving brother of Governors Winthrop Rockefeller (Arkansas) and Nelson Rockefeller (New York) and Uncle of Senator Jay Rockefeller. He had turned down invitations to become Secretary of the Treasury. He was the founder of the Trilateral Commission and was closely affiliated with the Council on Foreign Relations and the Bilderberg Group. Finally, he was the sole-surviving grandson of ‘John D’ - the entrepreneurial founder of Standard Oil, of which Exxon Mobil was only a part. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil also included what is known as Chevron and much of BP and other energy companies. David Rockefeller, along with related family trusts and foundations, was also a major Exxon shareholder.

With this background, it is fair to say that David Rockefeller was entitled to a civil response from Exxon and Tillerson. Instead, Exxon made it clear that the Rockefellers no longer had any special voice in Exxon and that if they did not like Exxon, they could sell their stock. I think that Tillerson acted like he was the creator of Exxon and Rockefeller was some meddling do-gooder of no consequence. Personally, I can shed no tears for Rex Tillerson. As has been oft said, what goes around, comes around!

So, Tillerson is gone and, upon confirmation by the Senate, he will be replaced by former CIA Director, Mike Pompeo. Pompeo is so different from Tillerson that it is difficult to predict how this will work out.

By way of background, Mike Pompeo was born in California and attended the United States Military Academy (West Point) where he graduated first in his class. Upon graduation, along with some classmates, he established a defence contractor in the State of Kansas. The company was established by purchasing several existing companies and merging them into one – named Thayer Aerospace in honour of West Point’s founder Sylvanus Thayer. The acquisition was funded in part by Koch Industries, owned by the prominent and very conservative Koch family. An active Tea Party Republican, Pompeo was elected to Congress and served for 3 terms before being appointed by the President to head the CIA.

While probably more ideological than the President, Mike Pompeo is also clearly more Trump’s style of a business person than the autocratic Tillerson. It remains to be seen if Pompeo’s Tea Party ideology will interfere with Trump’s non-ideological style of leadership. Ideologues tend not be particularly effective on the world stage. To me, the followers of realpolitik like the Nixon/Kissinger team were far more effective than ideologues like Condoleezza Rice (Secretary of State to George W Bush and supporter of the Iraq war).

As an experienced politician, Pompeo undoubtedly knows his place – he serves only at the pleasure of the President. While he lacks Rex Tillerson’s experience and knowledge, it remains to be seen if he can grow into the job. Regrettably, world affairs do not wait for apprentices to mature. While Nixon/Kissinger was a super-skilled team (though a deeply flawed combination), the skills of a Trump/Pompeo team are less apparent. But, assuming Pompeo is confirmed, the relationship should be less stormy than his predecessor’s. We can only hope that it will not be marked by folly.

First published . Last updated 22 Mar 2018. Disclaimer: The views, information, or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Newcastle and its employees.

About Harry Melkonian

Harry Melkonian is a freelance writer, educator, commentator and lawyer with a focus on US politics. He has conducted short courses on US politics in Sydney on topics ranging from current elections to historical issues including well-known events such as the Kennedy Assassination and Nixon and Watergate to less well-known American history such as When No One Was Elected – the Presidency and Vice Presidency 1974-1976. He has periodically appeared on the ABC and SBS as a commentator for Australian elections. Harry was previously a partner at the law firm White & Case in the US, and is licensed to practice law in the jurisdictions of New York, California, England and New South Wales. He is now an Honorary Associate at Macquarie Law School, specialising in US constitutional issues as well as media and defamation law.

The University of Newcastle, Sydney Campus is a leading provider of short courses in Australia, with industry qualified and experienced educators that bring up-to-date real-world skills directly to the classroom.