Conventional wisdom in Washington is that Rex Tilleron’s days as secretary of state are numbered. The former ExxonMobil CEO was a surprise pick for the job, including to Tillerson himself, since he had no previous relationship with Donald Trump.
Ten months into the Trump Administration, Tillerson is out of favor with his boss in a very public way, and the barbs are flying back and forth even as both the White House and the State Department deny it.
In particular, Trump has developed a striking habit of undermining his chief diplomat in public, including through his favorite medium of Twitter.
This might pass. Over the summer, similar talk swirled around Attorney General Jeff Sessions, including public venting from Trump. In part because Republican Senators rallied to the defense of their former colleague, Sessions remained, much to the chagrin of civil liberties advocates and criminal justice reformers.
But if Tillerson does make a premature departure from the cabinet, who might replace him? Jockeying for the position is already well underway.
Is Nikki Haley positioning herself as the next secretary of state?
One possibility is United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, another surprise pick when she was tapped from her previous job as South Carolina’s governor. Long viewed as a rising star in the GOP, many thought she took the UN job to polish up foreign policy credentials should she run for president herself.
Another persistent rumor is that she was positioning herself to replace Tillerson at Foggy Bottom. Haley has dutifully denied that speculation, but few think her career will end at the United Nations.
Haley was not a Trump loyalist, and was among the Republicans harshly critical of the bombastic TV show host during the party’s primary. That’s not necessarily a deal-killer: Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry called Trump a “cancer on conservatism,” before accepting a nomination to be secretary of energy. Still, the president may be more in the mood for proven loyalists.
Other possibilities include Tom Cotton and Jon Huntsman
Another possibility might be Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas. A relatively junior senator, Cotton was elected to the upper chamber in 2014 after just a single two-year term in the House of Representatives. Prior to entering politics, Cotton was a combat veteran of multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, ultimately rising to the rank of captain.
In Congress, Cotton quickly formed a reputation as one of the most hawkish members of the GOP, leading the opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. That could earn him points with Trump, as could Cotton’s rebukes in defense of Trump when colleagues have been publicly critical. Cotton has also already been through the vetting process, having previously been considered for Secretary of Defense.
Cotton might be the pick for loyalty and policy alignment, but sometimes Trump’s cabinet picks have represented an olive branch to the establishment, particularly party leaders on the Hill. In that case, Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman would be one logical choice.
The former governor of Utah has long been the darling of the elite foreign policy establishment, and has long been seen as coveting the job of secretary of state. He also served as Ambassador to China under President Obama, providing a record of bipartisanship.
Huntsman would bring gravitas and experience to the State Department, but he may, like Tillerson, find himself being undercut by the erratic occupant of the White House.
Does anyone want to be the next secretary of state?
Which gets to the real crux of the problem: after Trump’s public mistreatment of Tillerson, who would want to be his next secretary of state? Even more important: Who would be both Trumpian enough for Trump, but establishment-friendly enough to be confirmed by the Senate? It’s a short list, and arguably nobody really fits the bill.
One possible wildcard might be former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, but he appeared to be sidelined when he his wife, Callista Gingrich, was named Ambassador to the Vatican. Outgoing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has openly been pining for a job in the administration, but the former federal prosecutor has no background or experience in foreign policy.
A common traditional choice would be the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, but Trump and Corker have spent the past few days trading heated insults on Twitter. Corker even told The New York Times that he thinks Trump might start World War III, so joining the administration is probably not in the cards.
At the end of the day, Trump might end up keeping Tillerson not because he likes him, but because nobody else is both willing and able to take the job.
(Photo of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivering remarks at a joint press availability with U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, and Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. on August 17, 2017 via the State Department Photo)