During an interview with Foreign Policy (FP), former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that outgoing president Donald Trump is leaving a mess of such magnitude that it will take an extraordinary effort to clean up.
Tillerson said that the legacy Trump leaves behind—not just in terms of increasingly polarized domestic politics but also in terms of foreign policy—will greatly shape the Biden administration right out of the gate.
“The actions the president wanted to take were not consistent with our national security objectives,” Tillerson told FP. “His understanding of global events, his understanding of global history, his understanding of U.S. history was really limited. It’s really hard to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t even understand the concept for why we’re talking about this.”
Tillerson said that Trump was so inept that “I had to constantly evaluate my last conversations with him—what seemed to resonate, what seemed to get across, what didn’t—and I would try different approaches with him. I used to go into meetings with a list of four to five things I needed to talk to him about, and I quickly learned that if I got to three, it was a home run.”
“So I began to adjust what I went into a meeting with and what I attempted to explain and describe, and then I started taking charts and pictures with me because I found that those seemed to hold his attention better. If I could put a photo or a picture in front of him or a map or a piece of paper that had two big bullet points on it, he would focus on that, and I could build on that. Just sitting and trying to have a conversation as you and I are having just doesn’t work.”
More from the interview:
FP: If you’re having a hard time briefing him, and he’s not reading the briefings on important subjects, how does one make an informed decision then?
Tillerson: Well, that’s the key. I’m not sure many of those decisions were well informed. I think the other challenge that I came to realize early on is there were so many people who had access to his ear who were telling him things, most of which were untrue, and then he began to listen to those voices and form a view that had no basis in fact. […] There were other people giving him information that was not accurate, every day, usually before I got to see him. First thing in the morning and not from people inside the White House. It was really frustrating.”
FP: One thing that always stood out to observers was the constant disparagement of U.S. allies. How did you view that?
Tillerson: Well, he saw those as people who were weak. He used to say that over and over again. I don’t know why he viewed them as weak, other than they were overseeing free countries. It was very bizarre, and I could never understand that, and I still don’t.
FP: But while the president was disparaging France, Germany, Canada, and NATO, he seemed to want to do favors for authoritarian leaders. Why?
Tillerson: It’s a really interesting question—I don’t know. Someone would have to get inside his head to try to figure it out. The only rationalization I could come to was that he thought, “Well, if I disparage my allies and treat these bad guys as my friends, I’ll get more done with them in U.S. interests.” Maybe he thought, “I’ll let [North Korean leader] Kim [Jong Un] know we’re big buddies, and he’ll give up his nuclear weapons. I’ll let [Russian President Vladimir] Putin know we’re big buddies, and he’ll get out of Ukraine.” That’s the only way I could rationalize it, but I really don’t know.