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Mitt Romney’s rejection as secretary of state is bad news for the nation — and the world

Former Governor Mitt Romney speaking at CPAC FL in Orlando, Florida.

Mitt Romney will not, as it turns out, be the new U.S. Secretary of State. And that is not a good thing.

This week Donald Trump’s transition team revealed that Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil, is the president-elect’s choice for the nation’s top foreign relations post. Considering Tillerson’s deep ties to Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, his nomination has already garnered opposition from both parties within the Senate.

Romney on Monday evening posted a bland confirmation that he was out of the running:


I’m not saying that “bland” is an insult. Far from it. In fact, in our current political climate it’s just about the highest compliment that I could pay a leader.

Bland is measured. Bland is “think-before-you-shoot-off-at-the-mouth.” Bland is doing your homework. Bland is sitting in on policy meetings and taking copious notes.

If being prepared for a job, and adhering to a moral code of conduct, are the definition of blandness, the Trump administration could use a whole lot more of it. They’re not going to get it with Tillerson, who has no foreign policy experience to speak of other than as a business leader closing the “deals” Trump so admires.

The decision to pass over Mitt Romney, one of Trump’s most strident and consistent critics during the long campaign, tells us that at the end of the day, our insecure, thin-skinned, volatile president-elect isn’t prepared to put the good of the nation and the world ahead of his own bruised ego.

In fact, until this morning there wasn’t a single nominee who wasn’t a Trump supporter; today, it was announced that former Texas governor (and onetime presidential rival) Rick Perry is being tapped to serve as Energy Secretary. In general, however, Trump hasn’t practiced good politics so much as great nepotism.

team_of_rivals_doris_kearns_goodwin1What a significant departure this is from the actions of one of the best Republican presidents in our nation’s history, Abraham Lincoln. I’d be willing to bet good money that Donald Trump has never read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals (especially since, as has been noted, Trump never reads books of any kind), but if he ever did it could teach him a thing or two.

The basic thesis of Goodwin’s book is that Abraham Lincoln filled his inner circle of advisors not with his cronies, or with sycophants he could trust to flatter him, but with his toughest critics—the men who had also sought the presidency in 1860 and lost.

The history offers story after story of how men like Edwin Stanton and Salmon B. Chase, who mocked Lincoln endlessly both before and during the campaign, were given the highest posts of government in one of the darkest times in American history.

And this wasn’t just a Machiavellian “keep your friends close but your enemies closer” strategy on Lincoln’s part. Rather, it stemmed from his sincere belief that his fiercest critics had much to offer exactly because they were his fiercest critics.

Lincoln valued the fact that they saw things differently than he did, and therefore possessed perspectives that were vital to his fledgling administration.

And he understood that he needed people around him who would never be afraid to tell him when they thought he was dead wrong about something.

Stanton, before the war, had once snubbed and mocked Lincoln during a trial they were both litigating in Ohio, calling him a “long armed Ape” and questioning his abilities as an attorney. Far from nursing a grudge, Lincoln carefully studied Stanton’s strategy in court and went home to Illinois “to study law,” admitting that Stanton’s example made him realize how much he still had to learn. Six years later, when Lincoln was not quite a year into his presidency, he asked Stanton to replace the scandal-ridden Secretary of War:

Lincoln’s choice of Stanton would reveal . . . a singular ability to transcend personal vendetta, humiliation, or bitterness. As for Stanton, despite his initial contempt for “the long armed Ape,” he would not only accept the offer but come to respect and love Lincoln more than any person outside of his immediate family. (175)

Far more than healing the personal relationship, it can safely be said that the choice of Stanton – whose genius for organization and strategy Lincoln had been right to admire – greatly helped to win the war and save the Union. Without Lincoln’s ability to get past personal insults, we might not have a “United States of America” today.

Donald Trump is Lincoln’s polar opposite in terms of temperament – reactive where Lincoln was measured, prone to tantrums where Lincoln was mature, and desperate for adulation where Lincoln was – let’s just say it – sometimes bland.

This very public rejection of Romney probably feels good to a man like Trump, whose hypersensitivity to insult is legendary. And perhaps being passed over is a relief to Romney himself, who appears to have agreed to the possibility of serving in Trump’s administration primarily because he believed he could offer some much-needed damage control, even if it meant personally indenturing himself for at least four years of waiting for a wicked master to give him a sock.

But the decision is a very bad sign for the nation and the world.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • Never did I think I would have said, “I hope Romney gets Secretary of State,” but there it was. He was mocked in 2012, including by me, when he said that Russia was the US’s biggest geopolitical problem. He was right. I am hopeful that Tillerson is rejected on the merits, but also because it would be a sorely needed slap in the face to the Orange Usurper.

  • Trumps appointments, including SoS, have many, including myself, baffled. We cannot decide truly if these people will do a good job or not. Tillerson is not a comforting appointment, and I thought Romney would have been a good choice. Then factoring all the military generals appointed to other posts we are seeing something not seen before, a Presidential cabinet that is almost devoid of politicians. I will be cautiously optimistic that these people will do a good job and I think we are seeing real change rather than lip service. Which can be quite unsettling when we cannot really know what that change will entail.

  • The only picks which made some kind of operation sense were Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State, James Mattis for Secretary of Defense and Linda McMahon for SBA head.

    Tillerson has more experience in dealing with international relations than our last two Secretaries of State. One of my biggest pet peeves with the Obama administration was treating the position as a consolation prize, rather than one of the most important cabinet positions out there. Mattis is a fierce opponent of most of the arglebargle Trump had been saying in public and is not afraid to voice his opinion contrary to the President. McMahon was a brilliant businessperson whose work is still appreciated by most. (She came up with the extremely lucrative idea of professional wrestling action figures).

    The rest of the picks are a bunch of people who feel entitled to enrich themselves and destroy our nation as part of their jobs. I have nothing nice to say about them.

  • You might be right, Jana. However, that Mittens was even considering groveling, errr, applying for the job— and relevance— just confirms what I always thought about him.

    Personally I think you were giving mittens way too much credit. He just smarter and slicker than trump. Four years ago, mittens was all “great guy, Donald.” Trump certainly didn’t change in the meanstime.

  • Eisenhower, the last honorable republican president, Though not the last good one, warned us of the military industrial complex. Trump wants to marry it.

  • Both Donald Trump and Mitt Romney made their money by extracting wealth and destroying livelihoods of the working and middle class. Sometimes people do not want to be reminded of their own faults. Romney is too much of a reflection of Trump (a more polished, more politically astute one). Neither of them have an honest bone in their body. Both have complete and utter contempt for the poor, working and middle classes.

  • Ironically beefing up the military industrial complex is probably the best way to bring back working class manufacturing jobs to the US. The jobs can’t be outsourced overseas or worked by illegal alien labor. Yet neither party is addressing this.

    The demand is there. We still have the war in Afghanistan and
    involvement in about a dozen other conflicts that don’t make the news.
    Our allies in Asia (India, South Korea, Japan, Philippines, Taiwan) are clamoring for that high quality naval and airpower materiel.

  • The cynic in me thinks Trump was getting revenge by getting Romney’s hopes up while making him kiss Trump’s booty and then rejecting him – all in the public eye.

  • I agree, except I suspect that Trump was hoping for a public apology from Romney before he rejected him. I was happy to see that Romney had too much integrity to crawl like that.

  • The best way to make friends of our “enemies” is through trade, which cements our interdependence, rather than accentuating our separateness through competition. I’m glad President-elect Trump is choosing people like Tillerson with ties to Russia. That will make it much easier to extend friendship and trade to influence their behavior, rather than an adversarial stance that would probably lead to another arms race. If we can just do that with China, can North Korea be very far behind?

  • Yeah, I saw an article discussing an apology. If so I hope he refused. In politics you’re often friends before the campaign, enemies during and then friends again afterwards. Most don’t take it too seriously.

  • That’s well and good but not practical. Russia under Putin is not our (or Europe’s) friend. Their goal is to incorporate the Russian minority regions of the former Warsaw Pact back into Russia. He as annexed Crimea and is undermining the sovereignty of Ukraine in eastern Ukraine. Putin is undermining our efforts in Syria and supports nations we are not friendly with. He may (not proven yet) have been behind the email hack, trying to undermine us. No amount of trade or playing nice is going to change that. By failing to drive him out of Crimea we have encouraged him. As with some other nations, sanctions don’t work either.

  • Yes. I can’t see why well known politicians such as Clinton, Kerry or Romney are inherently suitable for the job of SoS. I didn’t think much of the job Clinton or Kerry did but how much of that was Obama I don’t know. As for Tillerson, I’m keeping an open mind. What he did for Exxon is not an indicator of what he will do when he works for the U.S. I’m open about putting CEOs and generals in these top jobs. Practical people who get things done and don’t brook bullshit sounds good.

  • It is one of the few cabinet posts where its members are remembered (Alexander Hamilton, Henry Seward, Robert McNamarra, Henry Kissinger…).

    Generally the job went to people who were conversant in foreign relations, politician or not. Frankly nothing in the past experiences of Clinton, Kerry or Romney really made them suitable for it. Tillerson appears to have at least the basic experience and competence needed for the position. But with all things, we shall see.

  • The problem Spuddie, is that “beefing up” leads to more war involvement and more dead bodies, American and otherwise. snacilbupeR love war, especially when the materiel factory is in their district.

  • Spuddie, more than Hillary and Kerry? Seriously?
    “Tillerson has more experience in dealing with international relations than our last two Secretaries of State.”

    Not only did Hillary have some Congressional experience, but 8 years in the White House. John Kerry was elected to the Senate in 1984 and was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before becoming Sec State in 2012.

    It’s not that Tillerson has no experience with foreign nations. He has business experience with many. But more than Hillary and Kerry? No.

  • I agree with your comment about trade, but not all nations are amenable to that, including Putin. He doesn’t want partners. He wants to rule the planet.

    Sable, when we trade with other nations, should we have any concern for foreign or domestic actions? I’m thinking about how they treat their people. What about Putin invading Ukraine for example? Full out military invasion. If we are trade partners do we ignore such things and continue trading? We did have more trade with Russia but reductions followed Putin’s acts of foreign aggression. How do you think that should be handled?

  • Hillary did not treat the job with the level of seriousness it required. It was a consolation prize for her. First Lady is not practical experience for a cabinet position. She was terrible at the job.

    Kerry at least I am willing to revise my opinion somewhat. The Iran deal was a work of pure brinksmanship. Iran’s nuclear program was largely bluff by then, but bellicosity was in the air. But he was largely asleep at the wheel for a host of foreign policy issues.

    We will see with this guy. Trump has made a lot of worse choices than this. I don’t think Romney was remotely qualified for the position.

  • I completely disagree with you about Hillary. What would she have had to do to show you she was serious about it?

  • We are already involved in a host of wars (most of which do not make the news on a regular basis). We have been doing them on the cheap since 2001. It hasn’t been a working strategy. Certainly outsourcing was a major fustercluck (see Blackwater). Our military is understaffed and under equipped to do its present role. The Republican led Congress has been stripping military and veterans benefits to the bone. The country is effectively tossing people who survived our current conflicts to the curb.

    Plus the point with Naval and Air Force materiel going to allies, is that this is equipment which is not only needed by them, but few have the ability to make them as well. In East Asia, China has been playing with its new toy, a deepwater navy. Much to the detriment of nations we are allied with, have trade relations with, or those just trying to maintain territorial integrity. The demand is there. The ability to produce could be here. I am not talking about nuclear subs here, but Coast Guard cutters, aegis cruisers, largely defensive equipment. We aren’t likely to go to war with China, nor any of its neighbors are either. But the world could do without seizing international territory and attacks on commercial ships.

  • Name a diplomatic accomplishment of hers while in the office and I will be willing to revise my opinion. I think that is fair enough.

  • “Friends” was too hopeful a word, I’ll now admit. I should have said instead, “disarm your enemies.” Trust is slowly build through experience. As Reagan would say, “trust, but verify!”

  • Short of a hot war, I believe trade is our best option. We haven’t had much luck censuring bad human rights behavior through the UN. These small countries unite to bully us and the rest of the developed world. Trade opens up other valuable kinds of exchange, such as students, teacher exchanges and medical missions. All these examples of “soft power” show a better way of doing things, and ultimately achieving greater success!

  • So, short of a shooting war, you wouldn’t change a thing regardless of what the other country did?

  • From what I’ve heard, Romney basically said that he’s been pleasantly surprised by Trump since the election. And I have to agree, so have I. But that’s hardly a repudiation of the truth of Romney’s earlier statements.

  • I feel 99% on the public knows nothing about Tillerson aside from that he is the CEO of a large oil company and that he has good relationships with countries that have oil interests. I’m not sure when having good relationships with foreign leaders is such a bad thing. I doubt Tillerson agrees with the atrocities that Putin has carried out, but you have to pick your fights.

    I got to hear Tillerson speak when he was accepting an award by the BYU Marriott School of Management. I invite anyone who may not know anything about him to take a look at the clip of the video I liked most by clicking the link. You can’t watch this and still think that he is going to just be a corrupt, crony pushover. Feel free to watch the rest of the speech, and if that’s too boring for the average person to at least check out the Q & A’s.

  • He wasn’t a corporate raider who made his money by dismembering companies and liquidating working and middle class jobs?

    Of course he was. Feel free to point out where I misrepresented the man and correct it. Otherwise, your comment is nonsense.