Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s seemingly sudden dismissal by President Donald Trump comes after a year of constant stories about his impending departure.
He had a number of significant policy and messaging disputes with the president, and every one of them was followed by a chorus of unnamed administration sources telling reporters that Tillerson’s ouster was imminent.
Here are some of the most significant and highly publicized disagreements between President Trump and his first secretary of state:
Russia. Trump critics immediately assumed Tillerson was fired for speaking out of turn by blaming Russia for the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter. However, senior administration officials claim Tillerson was asked to step down on Friday, three days before he made his comments about Russia. A source close to Pompeo told CNN he has known he would transition from CIA director to secretary of state since December, and his successor Gina Haspel has been effectively running the CIA for months while he prepared himself for the move.
Ironically, Tillerson’s history of business dealings with Russia fueled early criticism that his appointment as Secretary of State was a sign that Trump would be very soft on Moscow. By the time of his departure, Tillerson was seen as tougher than Trump on Russia, and the president was criticized for failing to follow his lead. For his part, Vladimir Putin said he regretted awarding Tillerson the “Order of Friendship” in 2013.
Tillerson took a more outspokenly negative view of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria than Trump, and pointedly disagreed with him about Russia’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 election. As recently as November, some analysts said Tillerson had grown so confident of his position, so certain that he would not be fired, that he was making his own foreign policy and using his public comments to prod Trump into seeing things his way.
Tillerson reportedly told an associate in July that he was “stunned” by President Trump’s apparent willingness to accept Putin’s denial of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
The “moron” incident. It would also be remiss not to mention the July 2017 Pentagon meeting at which Tillerson allegedly referred to President Trump as a “moron.”
Reports at the time claimed Tillerson spent the entire summer on the verge of quitting and was prevented from leaving only by appeals from Vice President Mike Pence.
Speculation about the exact reason for Tillerson’s outburst ran wild throughout Washington. Early rumors held that Tillerson, a former president of the Boy Scouts, was angered by Trump’s “politicized speech” to the organization. Some said Tillerson disliked Trump’s policy on Afghanistan. Later a theory developed that Tillerson thought Trump was a “moron” because he wanted to increase America’s inventory of nuclear weapons.
The State Department denied Tillerson used “that type of language” to refer to President Trump. Tillerson said at the time, and repeated as recently as a February interview with CBS News’ 60 Minutes, that he would not dignify questions about the “moron” incident with a response. Administration critics took this as a tacit admission that he did insult the president. Tillerson responded that focusing on rumors about what language he used in the Pentagon meeting was one of the “destructive games” of Washington.
North Korea. The stated reason for Tillerson’s replacement as Secretary of State is North Korea policy. Trump famously told Tillerson in October that he was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.” This was taken at the time as the clearest signal to date that Trump was not happy with his Secretary of State, and that Tillerson was conducting his own rogue foreign policy, although Trump and Tillerson downplayed it as a bit of good-natured ribbing.
Tillerson was therefore either surprised or gratified, depending on which source talks to a particular reporter, when Trump announced he was willing to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Just hours before the announcement was made, Tillerson told reporters, “We’re a long way from negotiations. We just need to be very clear-eyed and realistic about it.”
Some media soothsayers took it as a grim omen for Tillerson’s career that he was so clearly out of the loop when the most potentially important U.S. diplomatic mission in a generation was launched. Trump confirmed on Tuesday that he made his decision to meet with Kim Jong-un without consulting Tillerson.
Afghanistan. Tillerson was seen as undercutting Trump’s strategy in Afghanistan in August. Shortly after Trump declared “our troops will fight to win” and “from now on, victory will have a clear definition,” Tillerson told the Taliban: “You will not win a battlefield victory. We may not win one, but neither will you.”
“We believe that we can turn the tide of what has been a losing battle over the last year and a half or so and at least stabilize the situation and, hopefully, start seeing some battlefield victories on the part of the Afghan forces,” Tillerson said, in what was taken as a significant break from Trump’s promise of fighting to win and settling for nothing less than the defeat of the Taliban.
Supporters of the Trump administration’s diplomatic strategy pointed to the Afghanistan dispute as an example of the “good cop, bad cop” routine. Detractors sensed a power struggle between Trump loyalists and a dissident faction headed by Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who happens to have been in Afghanistan when Trump announced Tillerson’s departure on Tuesday.
Qatar. One of the most carefully scrutinized differences of opinion between President Trump and Secretary of State Tillerson involved Qatar. Trump was outspokenly supportive of the decision by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain to take action against Qatar for supporting terrorism. Tillerson’s criticism of Qatar was moderated by encouraging all parties to refrain from escalating the situation, and praise for Qatari progress in “halting financial support and expelling terrorist elements.”
“Everybody was taken by surprise by the president’s comments. It undermined what the secretary had to say. The policy that is being worked is the Tillerson policy, Trump’s comments notwithstanding,” a State Department official told the Washington Post in June.
In July, Trump praised Tillerson for “doing a terrific job” and said they disagreed “only in terms of tone” on Qatar. However, Tillerson continued to be much more critical of the “quartet” blockading Qatar than President Trump.
“There seems to be a real unwillingness on the part of some of the parties to want to engage. It’s up to the leadership of the quartet when they want to engage with Qatar because Qatar has been very clear—they’re ready to engage,” Tillerson said in October as he was preparing for another trip to the region.
In January, after the administration resolved a dispute with Qatar over airline subsidies, Tillerson praised Qatar as a “strong partner and a longtime friend of the United States.” He also talked up enhanced trade and energy cooperation between the U.S. and Qatar, and once again praised the Qataris for the improvements they have made in counterterrorism. Meanwhile, he encouraged Saudi Arabia to be “a bit more measured and a bit more thoughtful” in its actions with respect to Qatar and other Middle Eastern crises.
Some took President Trump’s greater willingness to criticize Saudi Arabia in the new year as a sign he was coming around to Tillerson’s point of view. Trump also thanked the Qataris for “action to counter terrorism and extremism in all forms” in January, a statement taken as a sign that relations between the White House and Qatar could be thawing out.
Iran nuclear deal. Tillerson frankly admitted in August that he disagrees with President Trump about the Iran nuclear deal. Trump has harshly criticized the deal and expressed a strong preference for scuttling or renegotiating it, while Tillerson argued, “There are a lot of alternative means with which we use the agreement to advance our policies and the relationship with Iran.”
After he fired Tillerson, Trump cited the Iran deal as one of the issues he was never able to resolve with the former secretary of state.
“When you look at the Iran deal: I think it’s terrible, I guess he thinks it was OK. I wanted to break it or do something and he felt a little bit differently. So we were not thinking the same,” he said, adding that new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has a more “similar thought process” on the matter.
The Paris climate accord. Tillerson was equally frank in disagreeing with President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord in June 2017. In fact, he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he was one of the most vocal opponents of Trump’s decision within the administration.
Tillerson gave Trump credit for hearing his views and considering input from European allies before withdrawing from the accord, but was notably absent from the White House ceremony to announce the decision and subsequent public events.
By September, Tillerson was telling reporters that Trump was willing to consider re-entering the Paris climate accords if the “right conditions” could be found. Other administration officials contradicted his remarks and said Trump is willing to work productively with other nations on environmental issues, but will not return to the Paris accords.
In January, Trump said the U.S. “could conceivably go back in” if the Paris agreement, which he described as a “bad deal,” could be altered so that it does not damage the American energy industry. Rumors continue to swirl that Trump is talking to foreign leaders and looking for a way to return to the Paris accords with a renegotiated American position, despite his continuing public criticism of the deal.
Trade and border security. Somewhat surprisingly given his background as a corporate CEO and advocate of free trade—arguably the strongest in the administration next to Gary Cohn, who departed less than a week ago—Tillerson has not publicly clashed with Trump much over trade policy.
One reason for this might be Trump and Tillerson’s shared concern for the danger posed by China’s growing influence. Tillerson has warned developing countries against doing business with China on several occasions, most recently in early February.
However, Tillerson made a trip to Latin America in February that was seen as out-of-step with Trump policies in several respects, including Tillerson’s praise for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which Trump has called “the worst trade deal ever.”
Tillerson was also taken as softer on border security and immigration reform than the president. Tillerson also directly contradicted the president on drug trafficking, praising Mexico for its efforts to interdict drug smuggling within hours of Trump criticizing them for “pouring” drugs into the United States. An official traveling with Tillerson said Trump’s comments were “not helpful” to the secretary of state’s diplomacy.
Israel and the Palestinians. Another muted dispute between Trump and Tillerson concerns the Palestinians. Tillerson was notably cooler than Trump on the notion of moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, projecting a considerably longer timetable for the move than other administration officials.
The first State Department report on terrorism under Tillerson was also taken as a sign of distance between State and the White House, with the former much more sympathetic to Palestinian arguments than the latter. In June 2017, Tillerson found it necessary to walk back his confident prediction that the Palestinians would end the horrific practice of paying off the families of terrorists, issuing a revised statement more in line with President Trump’s views.
Tillerson also disagreed with Trump’s position on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Trump and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley conditioned UNRWA aid on the Palestinians returning to peace negotiations, while Tillerson argued the UNRWA is a U.N. agency whose funding should not be linked to Palestinian conduct. The administration ultimately decided not to cut funding for Palestinian refugees, a decision seen as Tillerson prevailing over Haley in persuading Trump.