On Rex Tillerson’s Tenure as Secretary of State

On Tuesday, President Trump issued a tweet announcing that Rex Tillerson would be replaced as Secretary of State by current CIA Director Mike Pompeo. That Tillerson would be replaced as Secretary was not exactly news—reports of the tense relationship between Tillerson and the President date back several months at this point. What was surprising was the exact timing and manner of the announcement, with Tillerson apparently learning of his own departure from said tweet.

Others have discussed what Tillerson’s departure may mean for the State Department moving forward. Elizabeth Saunders recently touched on this topic at the Monkey Cage, as have the folks at Rational Security. More generally, Tillerson’s firing plays into the ongoing narrative that the Trump administration is wracked by chaos and disorder. Given the high number of departures, it’s hard to argue with this portrayal of the administration. At just over a year, the Trump administration has already lost several high-profile figures. Tillerson, though, may be the most prominent official to leave, aside from former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Flynn was unquestionably remarkable in terms of just how brief his time in office was, but just how unusual is Tillerson’s tenure by comparison? Below I provide some basic descriptive statistics and figures to put Tillerson’s tenure as Secretary of State into context. I did the same basic thing for Flynn’s time as NSA (see link above), but this time I look at the full range of secretaries, as well as post-war secretaries only.

Post-war secretaries of state ordered by duration in office.

Figure 1 shows the full list of secretaries, from Thomas Jefferson through Rex Tillerson. First, there’s quite a bit of variation in terms of the duration of any given individual’s time in office, ranging from 11 days (Elihu B. Washburne, 1869) to 4,279 days (Cordell Hull, 1933–1944).

Secretaries of state ordered by duration in office.

Figure 2 orders all secretaries by their time in office. Washburne, the shortest serving secretary, served under President Ulysses S. Grant. His time in office ended when he resigned to accept the position of Minister to France. State Department records indicate that this appointment was intended to be temporary, but this isn’t a case I’m familiar with so I can’t really weigh in on this point. Others, like Lawrence Eagleburger and Robert Bacon, were limited by the end of presidential administrations. Tillerson, at 423 days, ranks as the 16th shortest duration, and certainly comes in ahead of some other individuals, but he falls into the bottom 25% and is still one of the shortest serving secretaries in US history.  

Post-war secretaries of state ordered by entry date.

But how does Tillerson stack up against other post-war secretaries? Figure 3 shows the list of post-war secretaries. When we restrict the time period to the post-war period Tillerson’s brief tenure is even more pronounced. Tillerson’s tenure of just over one year is remarkably short compared to the previous six secretaries (7 if we skip Eagleburger and count James Baker), who all served for nearly 1,500 days (just over 4 years). The lower variance of post-war duration values adds some support to the idea that the post-war period was characterized by greater stability and consistency than the pre-war period. Figure 4 orders post-war secretaries according to duration, as in Figure 2. Here we can see that Tillerson’s tenure is the third shortest of the post-war period, coming in ahead of only Lawrence Eagleburger and Edward Muskie.

Again, Tillerson’s departure was not unexpected, but the manner in which he left was somewhat surprising, and his time in office was remarkably short compared to other secretaries of state. Even in the post-war era. The past 20 years have been characterized by remarkable consistency with respect to individuals’ tenure in office—even in cases where tensions between a sitting secretary and a president were more pronounced, like Colin Powell during the Bush administration. That Tillerson’s time was so short by comparison is a testament to both the president’s managerial style, and conflictual relationship with his secretary.

* Apologies for any lingering typos in the figures.

Michael Flynn

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.