We all know that Rex is a terrific name for a dog, but not just any old pooch will do. Poodles and fox terriers can forget it. A true Rex—an ideal Rex, let’s say—has got to be big, slow, ponderous, kind of gruff without standing a chance of actually scaring anybody and mysteriously able to combine being ineffectual with being reliable. What may be most relevant here is that he also needs to be too dumb to figure out he’s going through life minus his testicles.
Last Sunday, Rex Tillerson became the first Secretary of State in living memory who’s felt obliged to reassure the public that his scrotum isn’t just a bag of wind fronting for Foggy Bottom. “I’ve checked,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “I’m fully intact.” The forlorn Charlie Brown perfection of “I’ve checked” could be the best proof yet that Donald J. Trump’s presidency is some sort of vintage Peanuts special gone horribly wrong. Speaking of dogs, what in hell were we thinking when we gave Snoopy control of the nuclear codes?
Tillerson was being prodded by State of The Union’s host to react to GOP senator Bob Corker’s claim last week that Trump has “publicly castrated” the current occupant of a seat once held by foggy, bottomless Thomas Jefferson. Corker, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and recently made waves by calling the White House “an adult daycare center,” was most likely thinking of POTUS’s October 1st tweet that Rex was “wasting his time” by trying to convince the Chinese to reason with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un before we blow Pyongyang to Middle Kingdom come.
“Save your energy, Rex,” Trump advised, adding two befuddling new concepts to the mix. Rex Tillerson has energy? And if he does, then what is more important than using it to avert a potential nuclear confrontation with a country whose leader had been, prior to January 20, the battiest despot alive?
Just days later, Tillerson pointedly passed up two separate opportunities to deny that he’d called Trump a “fucking moron” after POTUS told the Pentagon’s brass he wanted the U.S. nuclear arsenal expanded eight times over, from our current 4,000 nukes back to our Cold War peak of 32,000. Not only was that reduction the result of a decades-long, painstaking arms-control negotiation—with which Trump is predictably unfamiliar—but nobody sane, including the Defense Department’s shocked bigwigs, thinks the U.S. needs a slew of extra nukes.
Tillerson has been savvier than Trump about how to deal with North Korea—even though that’s not a high bar to clear.
Nor, apparently, did Trump offer any reason, strategic or otherwise, for his demand. He just spotted that higher number on a chart and promptly turned into a kid in a radioactive candy store. Naturally, he dismissed the “moron” story as fake news, but that didn’t stop him from proposing that he and Tillerson should compare IQ tests. (Mensa promptly volunteered to host the showdown.) On his end, one report the Secretary of State did deny was that he’d almost resigned after Trump’s rambling, crudely politicized speech to the Boy Scouts last July. Allegedly, incoming chief of staff John Kelly, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence all had to help talk Tillerson down from the trees.
If we are, in fact, stumbling toward an armed confrontation with North Korea—and we may be, even though this administration’s incoherence makes placing bets foolhardy—it’s hard to think of the last time a government launched a war in a comparable state of disarray. The War of 1812, whose highlights included the British merrily torching Washington, D.C. after President James Madison decamped in panic, comes to mind.
In the past month, Trump hasn’t merely undercut, contradicted and humiliated his Secretary of State, who’s got the glum job of pretending his boss wants to avoid a head-on clash with “Little Rocket Man.” He’s alienated his own party’s big-league Capitol Hill players—at least on the Senate side, including not only Corker, but majority leader Mitch McConnell and eternal wild card John McCain. That the GOP’s poobahs are only grimly putting up with Trump in hopes of passing the giant giveaway to America’s wealthy they’ve misnamed tax “reform” is as morally vacuous as reacting to the Titanic’s sinking by struggling heroically to save the ship’s bell.
Trump has even managed to insult the U.S. military, from joshing with Sean Hannity about Hannity’s ratings during a solemn flag-lowering ceremony at an Air National Guard base to his grotesque “condolence” call—“He knew what he signed up for”—to the widow of Army Sergeant LaDavid T. Johnson, who was killed in Niger on October 4 and whose name Trump reportedly couldn’t even remember during the conversation. Then he tried to smear Obama’s track record at performing the same mournful duty, a baseless charge that was quickly and angrily refuted. Is this a Commander-in-Chief Americans can gladly salute as he sends them into harm’s way?
So far as North Korea goes, however, the main burden right now—or “until the first bomb drops,” as he himself put it—is on Tillerson. That’s not reassuring either. It’s widely agreed that he’s the least influential Secretary of State in living memory: feckless, sidelined and unmistakably bamboozled by the puzzling nature of his increasingly pointless job. Tillerson thinks his major brief is to make the State Department more “efficient,” but that’s not easy when you lack a basic understanding of its mission.
Nonetheless, he’s been savvier than Trump about how to deal with North Korea—even though, as we can all agree, that’s not a high bar to clear. (It says a lot that Corker named Tillerson, along with Mattis and Kelly, as one of the troika of grownups who “help separate our country from chaos.“) Apparently, he was making real, unflashy progress in convincing China to help corral Pyongyang’s bellicosity until Trump told him to save his energy.
By mid-week, Tillerson had plainly heard his master’s voice. In a talk at a Washington think tank, he went out of his way to criticize China as “irresponsible” and an economic predator while flattering India as a partner more aligned with U.S. interests. Even though angling for a closer relationship with India is by no means bad policy on its own terms, offending the Chinese when we’re depending on their help to avoid a war with North Korea was awfully peculiar timing—unless, of course, avoiding a war has a dwindling appeal for Tillerson’s boss and Tillerson knows it. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Back when he was an oil-industry tycoon, he was never this good at rolling over and playing dead.