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Trump is making Rex Tillerson’s job impossible, one petty insult at a time

Trump questions his secretary of state’s intelligence and denies undermining him. It’s going to have huge consequences.

President Donald Trump is taking swipes at his beleaguered Secretary of State Rex Tillerson yet again.

In an exclusive interview with Forbes, Trump said that reports that Tillerson once angrily called Trump a “moron” to White House staff — a claim that Tillerson has not publicly denied — probably aren’t true, but that if they are, Tillerson’s criticism isn’t accurate.

"I think it's fake news, but if he did that, I guess we'll have to compare IQ tests. And I can tell you who is going to win," Trump told Forbes.

At another point in the interview, Trump defended his tweets last week warning Tillerson that it was pointless “trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” his nickname for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

"He was wasting his time," Trump told Forbes, evidently unswayed by the uproar among foreign policy watchers that Trump’s public humiliation of Tillerson was likely unprecedented in modern American history.

The president also responded to the criticism that he weakens Tillerson’s effectiveness as a diplomat by criticizing him publicly.

"I'm not undermining," Trump said. "I think I'm actually strengthening authority."

Taken together, these comments will certainly accelerate Washington’s “Rexit” watch — the steadily growing expectation that Tillerson will resign from office or be pushed out.

But the issue isn’t whether Tillerson has the fortitude to endure this and future bouts of embarrassment caused by his own boss. It’s that his job is simply becoming impossible to do.

Trump doesn’t see the problem with destroying the credibility of his representatives

The secretary of state has a huge array of responsibilities as a top adviser to the president and the head of a large bureaucracy in the State Department. But first and foremost, he is supposed to be the nation’s top diplomat: the most credible communicator of America’s stance on every foreign policy issue and the most reliable negotiator on behalf of the US’s national interests in any diplomatic showdown.

Trump’s constant belittling of Tillerson effectively eradicates that claim to authority. When Trump publicly insults the intelligence of his secretary of state or tells him that he’s wasting his time trying to negotiate with North Korea, the international community pays attention.

So when Tillerson is talking with, say, Iranian officials about the future of the Iran nuclear deal, he probably won’t be taken seriously. They may (correctly) assume that Tillerson doesn’t really know where Trump stands on an issue or that Trump will not heed Tillerson’s interpretation of or specific actions on an issue.

Foreign officials may see agreements reached during meetings with Tillerson as more casual and tentative, if relevant at all. In other words, Tillerson is going to be treated like a much, much lower-ranking official than he is. Or he may be bypassed completely in favor of other White House advisers, such as Jared Kushner, who seem to have the president’s ear.

Of course, Tillerson may not take Trump’s antics to heart. By the secretary’s own account, he didn’t leave his job as chief of Exxon Mobil to serve in government out of any kind of deep loyalty to Trump or passion for his policies — he took this job after his wife convinced him that it was his duty to take it. “I told you God’s not through with you,” he recalls her telling him after meeting with Trump about the job.

But even a sense of spiritual or civic duty offers little protection against the reality that Tillerson’s job has simply become virtually impossible to carry out. It would not be unreasonable for him to decide that letting someone else take the reins would be the responsible thing to do.