Tillerson's relationship with Trump fraught from the start

Tillerson and Trump clashed on almost every big foreign policy issue they faced.

March 13, 2018, 1:39 PM

Washington D.C. -- 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.

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.

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