Thursday, April 19, 2018

Inside Rex Tillerson’s Ouster

Ronan Farrow, The New Yorker

The last days of his brief and chaotic tenure as Secretary of State

Image from the article, with caption: Before Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was abruptly fired, he oversaw a State Department that appeared to be plunged into chaos at every level.

Rex Tillerson’s team was fighting again. “So, who’s going to go in with him?” Margaret Peterlin, his chief of staff, was saying. She looked me up and down with an expression that suggested she’d discovered a pest in the house. We were standing at the wide double doors into the Secretary of State’s office on Mahogany Row, the opulent, wood-panelled corridor on the seventh floor of the State Department’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, which houses the most powerful offices in American foreign policy. Steven Goldstein, the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs [JB emphasis], folded his arms and stared daggers at Peterlin. “Well, I guess I won’t be,” he told her. “Heather can go.” Goldstein tilted his head toward Tillerson’s spokesperson, the former Fox News anchor Heather Nauert. Peterlin narrowed her eyes at Goldstein. “Are you sure?” she said, with theatrical displeasure. Goldstein didn’t reply. Tillerson strode up to the door, cutting the tension. Nauert and Peterlin joined the interview, along with Tillerson’s director of policy planning, Brian Hook. Goldstein remained outside. (Peterlin said that she was following a rule enacted by Secretary Tillerson that only one communications officer be allowed in his interviews.)

Such discord often simmered just under the surface in the year before Tillerson’s unceremonious firing in March, according to multiple members of his embattled inner circle. Often, it emanated from Peterlin, a formidable attorney, U.S. Navy veteran, and former congressional staffer who helped draft the Patriot Act after the September 11th attacks and guided Tillerson through his confirmation process. When she was passed a note indicating I’d arrived that day, she’d given the rest of the team an ultimatum: from the public-relations staff, only Goldstein would be permitted in the interview. Goldstein had pointed out that Nauert, as spokesperson, would be responsible for answering ensuing public questions. Peterlin insisted that there was simply no room. One staffer present said that there was another motivation: Peterlin had been lobbying to get Nauert fired. (Peterlin said that she did not lobby to fire Nauert, and pointed out that Nauert still holds her position as spokesperson, today.) The standoff hadn’t been resolved by the time I was ushered in to see Tillerson, nor as I left, when a second contretemps erupted over who would stay behind with the Secretary. (Goldstein again insisted on Nauert, visibly vexing Peterlin.) This squabbling barely qualified as drama, but displaying it so openly in front of a reporter was at odds with the kind of tightly organized messaging prized by most of Tillerson’s predecessors. It provided a small window into a State Department that appeared to be plunged into chaos at every level. ...

Until Tillerson was finally fired, in March, rumors of his demise were relentless. Mike Pompeo, the former C.I.A. director, whom President Trump nominated to replace Tillerson, was one popularly cited successor. Trump’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, was another. The perception that Tillerson had a rivalry with Haley appeared to be a source of particular vexation for the Secretary and his team. The day I met with him, they were still reeling from an announcement Haley had made about plans to withhold U.S. funding for U.N.R.W.A., the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees. Tillerson hadn’t been consulted. In a series of tense e-mails, Haley’s press office told Tillerson staffers that it had checked with the White House instead. Tensions between Secretaries of State and U.S. Ambassadors to the United Nations were nothing new, but this enmity seemed to run deeper. “Holy shit,” the source close to the White House said, “I’ve never seen anything like the way he’s treated her . . . it’s shocking.” Tillerson’s “rage” toward Haley had drawn the disapproval of even the President, the source added. Goldstein, the former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, attributed unflattering accounts from White House sources to disgruntled rivals. “What is said is the furthest from the truth,” he said. ...

In the months before his firing, Tillerson attempted to soften his messaging, praising the value of the Foreign Service in a Times Op-Ed and a “60 Minutes” interview. The guillotine finally descending suggested that the warmer embrace was unwelcome. Last month, Tillerson himself became the latest diplomat to receive a pink slip. “Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become your new Secretary of State,” Trump tweeted. “He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service!” As was increasingly the norm, the State Department was the last to know. “The Secretary did not speak to the President and is unaware of the reason,” a statement from Goldstein read. ...

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