At a charity event in Houston on Thursday night, Rex Tillerson—remember him?—spoke to Bob Schieffer, the former CBS News anchorman, about his fourteen months as Donald Trump’s Secretary of State. The sixty-six-year-old Texan, who spent ten years as the chief executive of ExxonMobil before joining the Trump Administration, at the start of 2017, didn’t hold back.
“What was challenging for me, coming from the disciplined, highly process-oriented ExxonMobil Corporation,” Tillerson said, was “to go to work for a man who is pretty undisciplined, doesn’t like to read, doesn’t read briefing reports, doesn’t like to get into the details of a lot of things, but, rather, just kind of says, ‘Look, this is what I believe. And you can try and convince me otherwise, but most of the time you are not going to be able to do that.’ ”
Tillerson pointed out that he had never met Trump before he took the job. Schieffer asked him what had finally soured their relationship. After umming and ahing a bit, Tillerson replied, “We did not have a common value system. The President would say, ‘Here’s what I want to do, and here’s how I want to do it.’ And I would have to say to him, ‘Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law. It violates the treaty.’ He got really frustrated . . . I think he grew tired of me being the guy every day who told him, ‘You can’t do that.’ ”
In a sense, there was nothing particularly newsworthy about Tillerson’s statements. We learned early on in Trump’s Presidency that he ignores his briefing books and gets much of his information from cable television. Ever since the courts blocked his anti-Muslim travel ban, he’s been ranting about how the judicial system has hemmed him in. And just last week he boasted to the Washington Post that his “gut” instinct “tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me.”
The importance of Tillerson’s recollections lies not so much in their content as in the fact that they came from him. This wasn’t an anonymous White House official blabbing to Bob Woodward or Michael Wolff. It was someone who held what is often regarded as the highest Cabinet post, someone who dealt with Trump—or tried to—on matters of great importance. According to reports at the time, Tillerson clashed with the President over Iran, the Paris climate-change agreement, and many other things.
In the end, Trump got so frustrated he ordered his chief of staff, John Kelly, to fire Tillerson. (According to one report, the Secretary of State was sitting on the toilet when he got the call.) On Friday afternoon, Trump responded to Tillerson’s comments about him by lashing out on Twitter. He called Tillerson “dumb as a rock” and “lazy as hell,” adding, “I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough.” On Saturday, he told reporters on the White House lawn that Kelly, too, would be gone by the end of the year.
Who would work for such a man?
Heather Nauert would, for one. In April, 2017, Nauert, who was formerly a presenter on “Fox & Friends,” the President’s favorite morning show, became the spokesperson at the State Department. On Friday morning, Trump announced that he is nominating Nauert for the post of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, which until recently was held by Nikki Haley. (My colleague Robin Wright has more on the Nauert story.)
Of more immediate consequence, Trump also confirmed that he is nominating as his next Attorney General William Barr, a sixty-eight-year-old conservative lawyer who held the same post in the Administration of George H. W. Bush. And the appointments may not end there. Before leaving for Kansas City, the President spurned the opportunity to deny numerous reports that Kelly is about to resign his post at the White House. The favorite to replace Kelly, who in turn replaced Reince Priebus, is Nick Ayers, a longtime Republican operative who is currently the chief of staff to Vice-President Mike Pence.
It’s hard to know what to make of the choice of Barr, who has spent much of the last twenty-five years providing high-priced legal advice to corporations. In the past, he has expressed skeptical opinions about the Robert Mueller investigation. He has also suggested that the Justice Department should investigate Hillary Clinton for the sale, while she was Secretary of State, of a uranium company with extraction rights in the U.S. In November, 2017, the Times reported that Barr believes there was “more basis for investigating the uranium deal than any supposed collusion between Mr. Trump and Russia.” Barr said to the Times, “To the extent it is not pursuing these matters, the Department is abdicating its responsibility.” On the basis of quotes like these, the argument can be made that Trump is appointing a Republican partisan—Barr worked in the Reagan Administration—who is likely to side with him in his war on the special counsel. Obviously, that would be alarming.
On the other hand, some critics of Trump and defenders of Mueller have reacted to Barr’s nomination positively. “Barr was a very fine AG,” Benjamin Wittes, the editor-in-chief of the Lawfare blog, wrote in a series of tweets. “He knows and values the department’s traditions and supervised at least two special prosecutor investigations. He is a strident and ideological conservative but he is also a very fine lawyer and someone who I think would make judgments on the merits.” During Barr’s tenure as Attorney General, from 1991 to 1993, Mueller headed the Justice Department’s criminal division and reported to him. “He was a good Attorney General to work for: he didn’t have a political agenda,” Michael Zeldin, an attorney and legal analyst who was an aide to Mueller at the Justice Department, told CNN on Friday.
It may be wise to withhold judgment on Barr, then, but one thing is certain. If he does turn out to be a solid upholder of the law, and of the Justice Department’s independence, he will run into conflict with a President who thinks the Attorney General’s primary job is to protect him. For more than eighteen months, Trump mercilessly berated Jeff Sessions for failing to carry out this role adequately. If Barr similarly disappoints, he will become another Presidential whipping boy, just like Sessions and Tillerson and many others before him.
To repeat the question: Who would work for such a man?
This piece has been updated to reflect the news that John Kelly will leave the White House by the end of the year.
More Info: newyorker.com