When Donald Trump chose Rex Tillerson to be his secretary of state in December 2016 he praised the former head of ExxonMobil for his “tenacity, broad experience and deep understanding of geopolitics.” In a tweet touting the pick, Trump called Tillerson “one of the truly great business leaders of the world.”
“Rex Tillerson, a man who is ‘dumb as a rock’ and totally ill prepared and ill equipped to be Secretary of State, made up a story (he got fired) that I was out-prepared by Vladimir Putin at a meeting in Hamburg, Germany. I don’t think Putin would agree. Look how the U.S. is doing!”
Well, Tillerson reportedly told congressional leaders that Trump was not as well-prepared for his 2017 meeting with Vladimir Putin as the Russian president was — and that it showed.
“We spent a lot of time in the conversation talking about how Putin seized every opportunity to push what he wanted,” an aide on the House Foreign Affairs Committee told The Washington Post of Tillerson’s briefing. “There was a discrepancy in preparation, and it created an unequal footing.”
Tillerson’s recounting of the meeting at the G20 summit in Poland is broadly consistent with the reporting of Trump’s preparations at the time. As CNN’s Kevin Liptak wrote in previewing the trip:
“Over the past several days, Trump has been presented with a large binder of preparation materials for his trip to Europe — but the section on his meeting with Putin amounts to only a ‘few pages’ of paper, according to one White House official. A second official said each talking point is only a sentence or two long to keep Trump focused during his meeting.”
It’s also consistent with what we know of Trump’s methods of preparation — or lack thereof. Rejecting past precedent, Trump doesn’t read the President’s Daily Brief, a collection of intelligence on threats around the world — choosing instead to listen to an oral presentation instead. In the run-up to his historic summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Trump eschewed any sort of formal preparations. “He doesn’t think he needs to,” a senior administration official familiar told Time magazine.
And even as a candidate, Trump didn’t feel the need to do any sort of traditional preparation. This is how The New York Times covered the story of his aides’ consternation after the first general election debate with Hillary Clinton in 2016:
“They blamed his overstuffed schedule, including a last-minute rally in Virginia that was added days before the debate. They blamed the large number of voluble people on his prep team, including two retired military figures with no political background. And they blamed the lack of time spent on preparing a game plan in the first place…
…Mr. Trump’s debate preparation was unconventional. Aides have introduced a lectern and encouraged him to participate in mock debates, but he has not embraced them, focusing mostly on conversations and discussions with advisers.”
All of which suggests Tillerson is telling the truth. Which you probably knew anyway.
What’s truly telling about all of this is that Trump seems to have no awareness or concern that he is now bashing a man he once touted as a brilliantly out-of-the-box pick to serve as the nation’s chief diplomat.
We know that Trump picked Tillerson for two basic reasons: 1) He was a businessman and 2) Trump believed he looked the part.
“As secretary of state, Trump tapped a neophyte to international diplomacy, but one whose silvery hair and boardroom bearing project authority,” the Post reported at the time.
There were doubts voiced from the second Trump named Tillerson that the Exxon chief might not have the requisite experience — he had never served in government before — to do the job. Trump ignored those voices because Tillerson fit his idea of what a secretary of state should look like.
And then Tillerson turned out to be something different than Trump thought he was getting. As a former head of a massive international company, Tillerson wanted a level of independence and freedom to do the job that Trump clearly wouldn’t give him.
“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump tweeted in October 2017 even as Tillerson was trying to broker a deal with North Korea. Days after that tweet came reporting that Tillerson had called Trump a “moron” in the summer of 2017 — a charge Tillerson held a news conference to not deny! “I think it’s fake news, but if he did that, I guess we’ll have to compare IQ tests,” Trump said in response. “And I can tell you who is going to win.”
And just like that, the man who Trump initially viewed as the crown jewel of his Cabinet was on the outs — never to return again. Tillerson was eventually fired in March 2018 — and Trump has been working to rewrite the history of his selection ever since.
Why? Because this is what Trump does. He refuses to ever admit mistakes. He never apologizes. He simply pretends as though whatever he said the day before — or the month before or the year before — about someone never happened. Every day is tabula rasa for this President; he starts with a blank blackboard on which to write — or, more accurately, tweet.
Which is how Trump can say that a man he touted as having a “deep understanding of geopolitics” is the same man he can say is “dumb as a rock” and “ill-prepared” to do the job to which he was nominated.
Of course, the person who did the nominating was Donald Trump. Which tells you all you need to know about his judgment.