Fans of Robert Ludlum’s thrillers easily recognize his protagonists as calm, canny, determined and worldly fellows quietly fighting sinister forces out to get rid of them in stealthy ways.
No one characterizes Rex Tillerson as thrilling. But he could otherwise fit that role. President-elect Donald Trump took the advice of Robert Gates and met with Tillerson, a career oil executive who spent years successfully running one of the globe’s larger corporations in Exxon Mobil and driving it through three massive mergers.
Soon after their meeting, Trump named Tillerson the 69th official Secretary of State in U. S. history, a long line of distinguished names such as Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Webster, William Seward, George Marshall and Henry Kissinger.
Tillerson is one of the few secretaries with no formal diplomatic experience and soon may become one of that office’s shortest-serving which, by the way, is fourth in line of succession to the presidency.
The latest bold bid by nameless administration sources to oust Tillerson by leak in collusion with cooperative media members is a classic D.C. maneuver full of intrigue, ambition and malevolence. It is also illustrative of the fetid field of play that so many millions of Americans disdain and chose Trump to drain.
Indeed in a recent Gallup Poll, respondents listed “Government” as the nation’s worst problem, actually a two-way condemnation since voters themselves selected the members of that government.
If several major media outlets are to be believed, at least two senior administration officials say Chief of Staff John Kelly has drawn up a plan to replace Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who would be replaced by Sen. Tom Cotton by year’s end or soon after.
The Washington media lap up these anonymous leaks like starving kittens. Personnel contests, like shallow election horse race stories, are easy to do, appear to contain drama and inside info and elevate the reporter to someone-in-the-know.
The fundamental problem with these self-serving reports is the sources are unknown, so news consumers cannot judge their trustworthiness and motivations. Which, of course, is the point of hiding their identities. Consumers must trust the reporters and media outlets, a dubious act in this era of rampant Trump antipathy. The New York Times started this latest Tillerson-is-a-goner meme.
Select reporters are handed a litany of alleged Tillerson failures to repeat, including bureaucratic lethargy and behind-the-scenes disagreements.
Some leaks, of course, are benignly promotional. FDR cleverly invented this media manipulation. Recognizing newspapers’ need for news and the lack of it for Monday editions, he filled the void with his own Sunday night messages.
Today’s unidentified leak sources, however, could also be rogue troublemakers with a grudge against the secretary. They could be deep-state operatives seeking to stoke the Trump narrative of operational chaos. Or as in a Ludlum novel, they could be authorized to do this by a shadowy higher-up with his own devious motivations, possibly to undermine and embarrass Tillerson so he resigns voluntarily.
During my days as a government and campaign information operative, a politician once handed me some info to leak anonymously, saying with a wink, “See that you suppress this widely.”
In this time of competitive 24/7 news cycles in Washington, it’s not all that hard for skilled political operatives to play hungry reporters, especially if the leaked info reflects negatively on Trump or his team.
One advantage is the hidden sources get the initial burst of coverage, often labeled “Exclusive,” and then a second wave of reinforcing coverage as other outlets play catchup. Third and fourth news cycles likely feature stories of predictable reactions from:
The Target: Leaving, said Tillerson, “has never been a consideration in my mind.”
From Congress: "It's been evident to me for some time, somebody is seeking to undermine his presence here," said Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
And from Trump himself: “He’s not leaving and while we disagree on certain subjects, (I call the final shots) we work well together and America is highly respected again!”
Of course, Trump vowed firm support previously for Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer, Tom Price, Jim Comey and Mike Flynn, all of whom ended up departing soon after.
At some point, of course, all Cabinet members leave their posts. After the colossally-botched Obamacare rollout and website collapse of 2013, Barack Obama didn’t fire Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. He kept her on for six months, then sent her off on a flood of praise.
Dumping Tillerson now would not be smart. He’s on a week-long European trip loyally delivering Trump advocacy to allies. And another firing would drown out the trumpets heralding Trump’s anticipated first legislative victory of tax reform.
Year end could be a good time to send the former oil executive back to his comfortable Texas retirement. Fewer people pay attention to news over holidays. And if, as has occurred during all previous Tillerson firing boomlets, the secretary doesn’t depart then, no one can point fingers at the sources. They’re still anonymous.
Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm.