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“The Secretary had every intention of staying”: State’s shocking Tillerson statement

I’ve never seen anything like this.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Mexico Hector Vivas/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Shortly after President Donald Trump ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and tapped CIA Director Mike Pompeo to take his place, State Department spokesperson Steve Goldstein issued a statement on the firing that’s frankly astonishing. It undercut the White House so aggressively that Goldstein was fired shortly after it went out.

Goldstein confirmed that Tillerson was fired, a rarity in a Washington where “resigns to spend more time with his family” is the norm. But the statement goes further than that, revealing that Trump did not inform Tillerson of the reason for his firing or even speak to the secretary personally before dismissing him.

I’ve been in Washington covering foreign policy and politics for nearly a decade now. I’ve never seen anything like this statement. Here’s the full text, as emailed to reporters:

The Secretary had every intention of staying because of the critical progress made in national security. He will miss his colleagues at the the [sic] Department of State and the foreign ministers he has worked with throughout the world.

The Secretary did not speak to the President and is unaware of the reason, but he is grateful for the opportunity to serve, and still believes strongly that public service is a noble calling.

We wish Secretary Designate Pompeo well.

Let’s count the eye-opening things here:

  1. Trump, whose television catchphrase was “You’re fired,” couldn’t bring himself to fire America’s top diplomat in person. This is similar to how he fired FBI Director James Comey, sending his former bodyguard Keith Schiller to deliver the news. The two incidents together confirm frequent press accounts that for all his bravado, Trump actually is loath to fire people himself.
  2. Tillerson reportedly only found out about his firing when Trump tweeted about it on Tuesday morning. This statement likely represents shock on the State Department’s part as well.
  3. The lead State Department spokesperson is openly insulting the president by leaking details about Tillerson’s dismissal that paint him in a negative light.
  4. Tillerson, whose tenure in Foggy Bottom was widely seen among foreign policy experts as one of the worst (if not the worst) in modern history, still believed he was doing a good job at the time of his firing.
  5. It’s still unclear why, exactly, the secretary of state was just fired at this particular moment in his spectacularly unimpressive tenure as America’s top diplomat.

In the Trump administration, chaos is something of a norm. But this is shocking even when grading on that curve.

For more on the exit of Rex Tillerson from the State Department, check out the Rexit Special episode of Worldly.