The string of departures that hit the White House in recent weeks has been a rare cause for optimism since the beginning of Donald Trump's agonizing presidency. How could anyone mourn the ouster of Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer, Reince Priebus or Sebastian Gorka, all of whom either encouraged or channelled a small man's worst impulses? Their firings should be cheered.
The Rex Tillerson deathwatch gripping Washington is a reminder of why optimism has its limits, however. The former Exxon Mobil chief executive officer's appointment as Secretary of State was greeted as one of Mr. Trump's more inspired nominations, widely praised by such respected former State Department heads as James Baker and Condoleezza Rice. Initial concerns that Mr. Tillerson might be too cozy with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he did plenty of business at Exxon, were quickly dispelled during his confirmation hearings.
With Defence Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Mr. Tillerson has formed the so-called "axis of adults" saving Mr. Trump from himself. Much of their time has been spent doing damage control, reassuring U.S. allies after one of the President's venomous tweets or walking back his veiled threats of nuclear war with North Korea. While Mr. Tillerson has had a rockier start than the other two, both of whom are career military men, he remains one of the saner voices surrounding a President whose sanity is openly questioned.
Not surprisingly, then, the State Department has sought to play down rumours that Mr. Tillerson may soon leave his post, a prospect so disruptive that it has earned its own name among the U.S. foreign policy establishment. While Mr. Tillerson has his share of critics among this diverse clique of hawks and doves, all agree that a so-called "Rexit" would further destabilize U.S. diplomacy at a moment of dangerously increasing tensions with Russia and North Korea.
But the rift between Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Trump may have grown too wide to bridge. The two men have contradicted each other so often now that the world is only left to wonder about where the United States really stands on a host of pressing dilemmas, from North Korea's taunting missile tests and the risk of civil war in Venezuela to the standoff between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and the fate of the Iran nuclear deal, from which Mr. Trump has threatened to withdraw.
Mr. Tillerson may be inscrutable by nature, but he appears particularly miserable in his current job. On Sunday, he committed what many consider a firing offence, if not a cry for help, by suggesting that Mr. Trump's comments attributing blame for this month's violence in Charlottesville, Va., to "both sides" in the race debate were not reflective of U.S. values.
Responding to a United Nations panel's criticism of the administration's failure to "unequivocally and unconditionally reject and condemn" racial violence, Mr. Tillerson told Fox News: "I don't believe anyone doubts the American people's values or the commitment of the American government or the government's agencies to advancing those values and defending those values."
"And the President's values?" anchor Chris Wallace insisted.
"The President speaks for himself, Chris," Mr. Tillerson replied.
Jaws dropped across D.C., and Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky, veterans of the State Department under both Republican and Democratic presidents, declared: "In a combined 50-plus years of working for secretaries of state of both parties, we've never heard the nation's top diplomat so economically and frontally distance himself from his boss."
Mr. Tillerson is henceforth a dead secretary walking. While disavowing Mr. Trump was the right thing to do, it was probably not the smartest. What little trust Mr. Trump had in his Secretary of State is likely to have been zapped faster than the television-addicted President could grab his remote. No foreign government can be sure that any undertaking Mr. Tillerson makes on behalf of the administration will be respected. All of Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland's efforts to cultivate close ties with Mr. Tillerson in hopes of saving the North American free-trade agreement may be for naught.
It will not likely get any better if and when Mr. Tillerson leaves. His likely replacement, UN Ambassador and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, is a Republican star whose credibility has remained untainted despite joining Team Trump. Perhaps her political experience would enable her to succeed where Mr. Tillerson failed. But the odds are against any secretary of state when the President speaks only for himself.