Over the weekend, in a moment that raised more than a few eyebrows, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the case that Donald Trump “speaks for himself,” not the country.
In the same interview, asked if he’s separating himself from the president’s reaction to Charlottesville, instead of saying, “No, of course not,” the secretary of state replied, “I’ve made my own comments as to our values as well in a speech I gave to the State Department this past week.”
And as unusual as it is to see a president and his administration’s chief diplomat on different pages, Tillerson isn’t the only cabinet member who’s diverging from Trump. This morning, the president said via Twitter that diplomacy with North Korea “is not the answer” – contradicting the secretary of state in the process – which apparently isn’t in line with his Pentagon chief’s views.
When asked by reporters just hours later if the United States was out of diplomatic solutions with North Korea amid rising tensions after a series of missile tests by Pyongyang, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis replied: “No.”
“We are never out of diplomatic solutions,” Mattis said before a meeting with his South Korean counterpart at the Pentagon. “We continue to work together, and the minister and I share a responsibility to provide for the protection of our nations, our populations and our interests.”
This wasn’t a direct rebuke of Trump – Mattis didn’t reference the president specifically in his response – but it was nevertheless jarring to see the president take one posture in the morning, only to see his secretary of defense take an entirely different posture a few hours later.
And this wasn’t the first time a gap emerged between Trump and Mattis in recent months.
The president broke with the secretary of defense in his NATO remarks in June, for example, and Mattis and Trump didn’t appear to be on the same page when it came to banning transgender Americans from military service.
The Pentagon chief was also recently filmed talking to U.S. troops abroad, where he said the United States has “two powers” when confronting challenges in the rest of the world: inspiration and intimidation. On the former, Mattis said, “The power of inspiration – we’ll get the power of inspiration back”
The implication was that we don’t have “power of inspiration” right now.
In any administration, there are going to be behind-the-scenes debates between a president, his cabinet, and top White House aides, and that’s not a bad thing. A deliberative policymaking process, by definition, requires deliberations. Even like-minded professionals are going to somtimes see major issues differently, and internal disagreements are inevitable.
But Trump World appears vastly different, in part because the debates are spilling out into the public, and in part because the president is diverging from some of his top cabinet members on fundamental questions – such as who speaks for the country and whether or not diplomacy with rogue nuclear nations can be effective.
The world is watching. It’s hard to imagine anyone feeling more confident about American leadership by what they’re seeing.