Washington D.C. — Mar 13, 2018, 1:39 PM ET

Tillerson's relationship with Trump fraught from the start


While President Donald Trump's sudden firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shocked many, perhaps even Tillerson himself, the relationship between the two has been fraught from the start.

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Tillerson and Trump have clashed on almost all the major foreign policy issues this administration has confronted, including Iran, North Korea, climate change, and international trade. The very public disagreements undermined Tillerson's ability to speak for the administration abroad and eventually created a gulf too wide to bridge between the two men.

Tillerson has advocated for staying in the Iran deal; supported diplomacy with North Korea even when Trump called talking a waste of time; and pushed to remain in the Paris Climate accord and multilateral trade deals like NAFTA and TPP. There were also disputes over Trump's decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, whether to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan and which side to support in a major dispute between Gulf allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on the one hand and Qatar on the other.

The disagreements have also gotten personal. In October, Tillerson would not directly deny reports that he called the president a "moron." Although the president called those reports "fake news," he also made a point of saying he has the higher IQ of the two.

Most recently, Tillerson seemed to be caught completely off guard about the president's decision to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, by far one of the biggest foreign policy decisions of Trump's presidency. Just hours before the announcement, Tillerson was pumping the brakes on any talks, saying, "We're a long ways from negotiations."

That was the opposite of last fall when Tillerson noted the administration had channels open to North Korea to see if the regime was interested in talking. The next day, Trump tweeted that Tillerson was "wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man," an insulting nickname he uses for the North Korean strongman.

But one of their most contentious moments came early in the administration when they clashed over the administration's approach to the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran. During a meeting at the White House last summer the president became irritated with Tillerson after he encouraged him to certify the Iran deal and failed to present options for walking away from it.

"Rex and I have been talking about this for a long time," Trump said of his decision as he was departing the White House Tuesday. "We got along actually quite well, but we disagreed on things. When you look at the Iran deal, I thought it was terrible. He thought it was okay. I wanted to either break it or do something. He felt a little differently. So, we were not really thinking the same."

Tillerson was open about some of their disagreements as well. He told reporters in August after that meeting that Trump "and I have differences of views on things like JCPOA and how we should use it," using an acronym for the deal's formal name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

To Tillerson, those differences were a sign of how he served Trump, of their "very open relationship, and it’s one in which I feel quite comfortable telling him my views."

But in addition to angering Trump, the fact that their disagreements were so public also undermined his ability to speak for Trump abroad, with foreign diplomats often questioning whether or not the nation's top diplomat spoke for his boss.

When Tillerson urged the Gulf countries to settle their dispute and come together, Trump initially blasted Qatar for its ties to terrorism - even seeming to take credit for the Saudi and Emirati blockade of their Gulf neighbor. Tillerson's shuttle diplomacy in the region has had no success in mending the fences since then.

Trump eventually came around to Tillerson's view on the Gulf dispute, and he has even offered to mediate a summit among the countries. But that was one of the only instances where Tillerson was able to convince Trump of his view, in addition to Afghanistan where Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and others convinced Trump to keep U.S. troops deployed.

More often, Trump has stuck to his views, and the disagreements have soured their relationship. While Tillerson has worked with European allies to keep the deal in place and negotiate an add-on that combats Iran's "malign" behavior in the region and sanctions its ballistic missile program, Trump still desires to tear up the agreement that Obama's team negotiated.

Trump's decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem was also opposed by Tillerson, who warned of security concerns and the damage it would do to the peace process and with Arab allies. Trump went ahead anyway.

Just last week, as Tillerson was pushing back on the perception that Trump does not care about Africa after his "s---hole" countries remark, Trump was implementing new tariffs on steel and aluminum - a move which Tillerson was against.

News - Tillerson's relationship with Trump fraught from the start

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  • Jack25

    Let’s see, Tillerson is an adult, Trump is a twelve year old in an old floppy body. Was never going to work out from beginning.

  • boyscout

    I did not have high expectations on tillerson going in because he was a fatcat oilman. This is one of the industries that keeps us in pollution and darkness rather than a brighter safer healthier future. But I will say this: He was one of the very few in this cavalcade of clowns who actually acted with some dignity and respect to the office and to our country. That is probably why he is out. Remember this is a tv show to trumppy and whacked out means everything for ratings which is all he really cares about besides taking advantage of the country and people of America for personal gain. And I might add he does it in a very sinister, criminal and disgusting way.

  • SaveRMiddle

    As we've witnessed in Turkey, in a dictatorship mindset, Integrity is a threatening obstacle which must be removed.
    There is simply no place for it. Tillerson has just been redeemed.

  • Brian Keele

    He should start a 25th ammendment petition before his official last day.

  • Fermer Votre Bouche

    Tillerson will always be remembered for his accurate assessment of his boss : "Trump is a <explicative> moron".

  • TexasVulcan

    I always thought Rex Tillerson was way too intelligent for the Trump administration. Most people don't know this, but he was not originally a businessman, but an engineer. Exxon saw managerial traits and got him into management.

  • Misty Mac 💯

    It’s as if Trump is determined to destroy the State Department. Already extremely understaffed, this shakeup couldn’t come at a worse time.

    For Trump, Tillerson’s agreement with the UK about Putin’s involvement in the spy poisoning was the last straw.

    Anyone who points the finger at Putin has to go!

  • linmarco

    We are trapped in a web inside a maze in an abyss. God help us. This man wants to take us to war. The airheads among us will accept military caskets returning. They are the jingoists who would run if they saw a pair of combat boots. The sane among us know better but unfortunately we are in a bash the intellectuals period. Act intelligent and you draw a malicious label. I am an octogenarian in fairly good health but I know my day of transition awaits. I hope it's after he leaves office.

  • Billy Bob Smith

    Hey, Rex, don't pay attention to Huckabee Sanders. Just pack up your stuff and walk out the door today. Let Trump handle the mess. You owe him nothing.

  • AngeredVoter

    Trump has complete confidence in Secretary Tillerson and has repeatedly stated that any reports of him intending to fire Tillerson are FAKE NEWS! <sarcasm>

  • Red Hawk

    Trump has been undermining Tillerson from day one by assigning duties reserved to the SoS to his son in law who is not qualified to do a business deal much less international affairs.