White House

DC's 'Odd Couple' was bound to clash

The "Odd Couple," with Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, made movie history nearly 50 years ago when the sloppy Oscar invites his buttoned-up friend Felix to move with him after Felix's ex-wife left for greener pastures. In this comedic masterpiece, the two were like "chalk and cheese" when forced to live together in close quarters.

But a real-life version of this tale is now playing out in Washington, and it's no laughing matter. Donald Trump, today's Oscar, invited Rex Tillerson, today's Felix, to run the State Department. It was too easy to predict that the styles of the two men would soon clash.

The president has never worked in an organization that he has not owned. Ever the autocrat, he zigs first this way, then that, utterly indifferent to the consequences that his actions have on others.


His recent dismal performance on the response to the Puerto Rico disaster reveals a tasteless and buffoonish man who would rather pick a fight than solve a problem. The price is chronic strife and instability in high places.

In contrast, the dutiful Tillerson worked his way up from an entry-level engineering position at ExxonMobil to become the highly successful CEO of what was then world's largest business.

Very early on, Tillerson learned that the leadership of large organizations needs focus and discipline that can only be achieved by cultivating long-term relationships of trust with key subordinates, while keeping closely to as well-vetted game plan. As the boss who wanted others to follow the rules, Tillerson had to scrupulously follow them himself.

These two styles were bound to clash. What makes matters worse is that neither man has any experience working in the high-charged political Washington environment, where verbal daggers are always at the ready.

The State Department in particular - and the Washington establishment in general - is not some precision profit-making machine. Trump, the star-crazed personality, thrives on the endless tumult and confusion that is only one tweet away.

His erratic performance creates mess after mess for other people to clean up. Ever the insomniac, he puts Larry David to shame, never able to curb his own enthusiasm for some offensive remark or gratuitous slur.

It was widely reported that Tillerson, who served as the national president of the Boy Scouts between 2010 and 2012, had to be talked out of resigning after Trump embarrassed himself by given a crude political speech at the Boy Scout Jamboree in July, 2017.

Everyone now glosses over but does not squarely deny reports that Tillerson called the President a "moron" on the pragmatic ground that truth is not a defense in Washington politics. Reportedly, Vice President Mike Pence, one of the few grown-ups in Trump's inner circle, had to talk him out of resigning.

Ironically, Trump needs to keep Tillerson on. And Tillerson's abject press appearance praising Trump and his "America First" approach reveals that he lacks the willingness, whether out of vanity or duty, to quit the administration.

The upshot is that Trump, who has a real scent for blood, will continue to trample and berate Tillerson whenever it's his whim of the moment.

It is all high theater. It is also disastrous policy. Internally, Tillerson had taken significant heat for his decisions on shrinking the State Department, which certainly could stand a thorough overhaul.

But it is unclear how anyone with zero experience in diplomatic or government service, like Tillerson, can implement the correct changes, especially if the ever-meddlesome Trump refuses to let him name his key assistants.

Tillerson is also now in the impossible position of dealing with foreign leaders after Trump publicly cut his legs out from under him with  two sophomoric tweets on North Korea. No one can surmise whether our wonderful secretary of state is being pushed out the door, perhaps before he reluctantly decides to jump.

But this much is clear: Tillerson is not the kind of guy to make a public spectacle of himself, and Trump is. So, if Tillerson goes, someone will have to replace him. Thus, sooner, rather than later, Trump's revolving door will spin once again.

The bossman calls the shots. There is only one way for this to end, which is for Trump to resign from an office that he is utterly unfit to hold. Self-knowledge is not the president's strong suit, and few in government will risk dismissal or humiliation by telling the president what he needs to hear - not that he would listen anyhow.

Just as Steve Bannon is a better fit at Breitbart, Trump is a better fit managing his family golf courses and starring in reality TV shows. For the sake of us all, he should go. Now.

Richard A. Epstein is the Peter and Kirsten Bedford senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is the Laurence A. Tisch professor of law at New York University Law School and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago.

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