President Trump’s dismissal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday was an abrupt, messy, and dramatic show of perhaps the most surprising thing Americans have learned about their president—the showman whose trademark phrase was “You’re fired” really isn’t very good at firing people.
His firing of Tillerson was as clumsy as any dismissal of a high-level official in modern American history. No one near Tillerson’s rank has been so publicly surprised since President Truman was forced by a news leak in 1951 to confirm his firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur before the general was officially informed.
Tillerson had been warned by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly on Friday that something may be imminent. But after almost 14 months of public taunts from the president and rampant speculation about his job security, Tillerson reportedly did not think the axe would fall on this day. At 8:44 a.m. EDT, the world learned otherwise. It was then that the president tweeted his new choice for the top diplomatic post, adding almost as an afterthought, “Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service!”
Because the White House did not cover the firing with the traditional fig leaf of accepting a “resignation” letter and effusively praising the official they forced to walk the gangplank, Tillerson’s allies at the State Department responded in kind. Steve Goldstein, the undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, put out a blunt statement that infuriated the White House. “The secretary had every intention of staying,” the statement said, adding pointedly, “The secretary did not speak to the president this morning and is unaware of the reason.” Goldstein was immediately fired by the White House for his truth-telling.
For Washington, this is highly unusual behavior. For Trump, it has become expected.
When he fired FBI Director James Comey last May, he dispatched his personal aide Keith Schiller to bring the news to Comey’s office. Then he leaked the firing so that Comey, who was in California, would learn he was fired from cable news. When the president fired his first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, he did it by tweet, letting the world see a humiliated Priebus leave Air Force One in the rain and go to a waiting car to whisk him away from his former duties.
“I think Donald Trump doesn’t like to fire people, period,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told Fox News the week Priebus was dumped. In an interview with Life Beyond Sport before the campaign, Trump admitted this. “People think I enjoy firing people. I don’t,” he said of the firings on his show The Apprentice.
In her book All Alone on the 68th Floor, Barbara Res, who worked with Trump for 18 years and was the top construction engineer on Trump Tower, contrasted the TV Trump with the man she saw in a real business. “Maybe Donald can unceremoniously say, ‘You’re fired’ to actors on a TV show, but in real life, he hated to do it,” she wrote. “When someone had to be fired, Donald laid the job off on an underling.”
In Washington, a city that still celebrates Truman’s “the buck stops here” slogan, that is something new at the White House. When President George H.W. Bush in 1991 wanted to push Chief of Staff John Sununu out, he sent the message first through his son, George W. Bush. Sununu dismissed the warning, and then the president had several face-to-face conversations with Sununu, allowing him to resign and calling that resignation “a class act.” Similarly, in 1987, when President Reagan wanted to oust Chief of Staff Donald Regan, he used family—first lady Nancy Reagan—to give a nudge. But Reagan used a personal meeting with Regan to set the actual departure, hoping to make it look less embarrassing to Regan. Reagan also tried to spare the feelings of Secretary of State Alexander Haig when he pushed him out in 1982.
Trump has shown no such concern for the feelings of any of the officials he has fired from his campaign or his administration, with the exception of his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, whom he lavishly praised even while dismissing him.
“This is Trump,” said Bruce Jentleson, a veteran of the State Department when Presidents Clinton and Obama were in office and currently professor of political science at Duke University. “There is a real abruptness and in-your-faceness to the way Trump does it. We all find out at the same time as the person being fired.”
He said this allows the president to avoid facing his victims. “As tough as he likes to sound, he is unwilling to look somebody in the eyes and say, ‘I’m firing you.’ It may be because he worries about what they may say in return—like they might ask the question, ‘Why?’”
Jentleson calls it a major “temperament issue” for the president. “A bully does it like this, and thin skin is why he will not do it face to face,” he said.