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Looking At Tillerson's Future At The State Department


A major shakeup in President Trump's cabinet could be happening. Will Secretary of State Rex Tillerson leave? A reporter asked President Trump this yesterday.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you want Rex Tillerson on the job, Mr. President?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He's here. Rex is here.

MARTIN: Rex is here. News reports say Tillerson won't be there long, though, and that Trump plans to replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert denied any knowledge of this yesterday.


HEATHER NAUERT: I don't work at the White House. But what I can tell you is that Chief of Staff Kelly called our department this morning and said that the rumors are not true - that those reports are not true.

MARTIN: All right. Let's talk about all this with Eliot Cohen. He has served in the State Department under President George W. Bush. He was also one of the so-called Never Trumpers during the presidential campaign last year and continues to be a strong critic of President Trump. Mr. Cohen, thanks for being here.

ELIOT COHEN: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: What's your take on what's happening right now with this pending leadership change at State and how it's being implemented?

COHEN: Well, it's a particularly graceless way of getting rid of a not-very-effective secretary of state. I mean, I think that - you just look at the pattern of the reports. It's quite clear the White House is leaking this in the hope of forcing Tillerson out. Of course, they tried that with Jeff Sessions, and it didn't work. But my guess is that in this case, it probably will. It's ugly. But at the end of it, we're going to have a different secretary of state.

MARTIN: You wrote a piece just this last month in The Atlantic titled "Rex Tillerson Must Go." So you must be pleased with this possibility.

COHEN: Well, I think it's - I really do think he's been a pretty disastrous secretary of state - not because he's a bad human being - far from it. But he's been unable to lead the State Department. And, of course, he's got to work for Donald Trump. I think if it's true that Mike Pompeo is going to be replacing him, he will be more effective simply, I think, because he will be better at running a big federal bureaucracy. Rex Tillerson came from a very, very narrow background, tried to run the State Department with really a tiny handful of aides, never connected with the State Department press. I mean, there's just one thing after another. And Pompeo won't make those mistakes.

MARTIN: Correct me if I'm wrong. But Rex Tillerson has carried the water to a certain degree. I mean, he's been at odds with the president on some important policy decisions, like Iran. But he has carried forth the edict to make cuts. Critics have called it hollowing out of the State Department, especially in the senior diplomatic ranks. But he has moved that forward - streaming the bureaucracy. Clearly, that has not been enough to endear him to the president.

COHEN: Well, you know, in some ways, the job of the secretary of state in this sort of circumstances is not simply - to a kind of a docile way - accept a 30 percent cut that's been ordained by a director of the Office of Management and Budget who knows nothing about diplomacy. Your job is to fight back. Your job is to stand up for your department. And that would be the normal thing. And that's, you know, the kind of dark arts of Washington, which Pompeo will be perfectly good at.

The other thing that's happened is he has simply not filled major positions that you're absolutely going to need - like, the assistant secretary of state who deals with East Asia, which happens to be where North Korea's located, or the Middle East, which is where Iran and Saudi Arabia are located. So on some very basic managerial tasks, he has really failed.

MARTIN: So you mentioned Mike Pompeo. You say that this is the CIA director who is reported to be the one tapped to take Rex Tillerson's place. I mean, he knows Washington. He knows how to manage a bureaucracy. Will he be able to be the kind of secretary of state that will be efficient? I mean, is he someone that Donald Trump will listen to? Clearly, he didn't listen to Rex Tillerson.

COHEN: Look. They - you know, sometimes people in the press talk about who is loyal to Trump and who's not. Nobody's actually loyal to Trump as a human being because he's not the kind of human being who can attract loyalty. There are people who are better at manipulating him and people who are worse. Tillerson was terrible at it. Pompeo, on all the evidence, seems to be outstanding at manipulating him.

MARTIN: Eliot Cohen, former State Department counselor under George W. Bush - currently the director of the Strategic Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University. Thanks so much.

COHEN: You're welcome.

MARTIN: All right. We are going to bring in NPR's Michele Kelemen now. She's been listening to that conversation. She covers the State Department. Hi, Michele.


MARTIN: Do you get the sense President Trump and his advisers are unhappy with Secretary Tillerson's performance? I guess that's an understatement.

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, they're certainly not doing anything to push back against this idea that he's going to be out soon and that Trump is unhappy with him. And, you know, Tillerson has been on the losing side of plenty of policy disputes, from the Paris climate change deal to Iran, even on North Korea, where Tillerson was supposedly the lead in keeping open diplomatic channels. The president once tweeted that Tillerson is wasting his time.

MARTIN: So we just heard Eliot Cohen there talk about the fact that Tillerson's been unable to fill these key positions at the State Department. Just based on your conversations with State Department employees, what's morale like there?

KELEMEN: Well, morale is low. I mean, you know, even the State Department spokesperson has acknowledged that there's a morale problem. Officials blame it mostly on the secrecy surrounding Tillerson's reform plans. But it is more than that. It's about how he runs the building and also that he and the White House haven't been on the same page on some of these key appointments. That's been a problem that he's faced all along. We'll see if another secretary can change that. It's really unclear.

MARTIN: NPR's Michele Kelemen. Thanks, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.