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Tensions Rise Between Tillerson And Trump As The Threat Of War In N. Korea Looms


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Ever since NBC reported last week that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had called President Trump a moron, speculation has increased about whether Tillerson will last much longer in the job. My guest Dexter Filkins has a new article in The New Yorker titled "Rex Tillerson At The Breaking Point." Filkins started researching the article months ago. It's about the tensions between Trump and Tillerson, Tillerson's legacy at Exxon, where he became CEO in 2006, his strategies today in dealing with North Korea and Iran and how he's presiding over a State Department in which most key positions remain unfilled.

One of the things we're going to focus on is North Korea and the possibility of the escalating rhetoric actually leading to a war. Filkins's previous article for The New Yorker was about Secretary of Defense General James Mattis, who Filkins first met when he was reporting on the war in Iraq. Filkins covered the war for The New York Times. He's now a staff writer at The New Yorker covering foreign affairs.

Dexter Filkins, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Can we just start by acknowledging that the secretary of state you've just written about may not be the secretary of state much longer, which means your piece may've been written at exactly the right or exactly the wrong time (laughter)?

DEXTER FILKINS: Yeah, yeah, well, it's great if you're a journalist to have, you know, perfect timing. And in this case, I had perfect timing. I started working on that piece a long time ago, not knowing that all of this was going to come to a head. But I think he's - you know, he's still in the job as we speak. And I think he's pretty frustrated. But that is a chaotic administration on any day of the week. And so who knows what tomorrow will bring?

GROSS: What are you hearing about the relationship between Tillerson and Trump?

FILKINS: Well, it's funny. I'm the - initially, when I started talking to people, and the people around him say, it's great. You know, they talk all the time. They talk several times a day. Trump calls him, you know, middle of the night, whenever he wants. And I think that's true. But I - you know, there's an anecdote, which many of your listeners will have heard by now, which is, Tillerson was apparently in a meeting after one of - he was complaining about one of Trump's speeches. And he called him a moron, and there was a - you know, there was another word attached to the word moron, which I won't repeat.

But I think - you know, I think he's frustrated. I think it's difficult for - you know, Rex Tillerson is, I think - he's a pretty sober and a pretty steady guy. And of course, the president is anything but that. And I think Tillerson in particular has been trying very hard in places like North Korea, where we have a - you know, a terrible crisis on our hands, to make a diplomatic solution to try to avert war. I think, you know, the possibility of war with North Korea right now is very real. And so he - you know, he flies out to China to try to make a deal and - to try to make a diplomatic deal to stave off war. And the president makes fun of him. And he undercuts him - Rex, you're wasting your time. And I - you know, he's the secretary of state of the United States. It's - I think he's pretty frustrated with that, that he feels like he can't do his job.

GROSS: One official told you, the only reason why Tillerson has stayed this long is loyalty to the country.

FILKINS: Yeah, you know, he's an Eagle Scout. And there's a lot of Eagle Scouts in the president's cabinet, and there's a lot of generals around him. And somebody said to me, the only people left around the president are generals and Boy Scouts. And they're hanging in there out of - not because they like it or not because they're, you know, pleased to go into work every day but because they feel a responsibility to the country.

GROSS: What have you heard about the so-called suicide pact - that if Tillerson is let loose, then Secretary of Defense Mattis and Secretary of the Treasury Mnuchin would leave as well? They would just - they would walk.

FILKINS: Well, I heard that. I - you know, Washington is - it's such a chatterbox. And when you go down there, you know, it's just an echo chamber, and everybody's, like, gossiping. It's hard to know what's true. I do know that Tillerson and Mattis talk a lot, and they have a lot of respect for each other. And I think that they - you know, they talk a lot because it's - they both deal with foreign affairs. And, you know, one is the carrot, and the other is the stick. And they're trying to coordinate a lot. So they talk a lot. And so it wouldn't surprise me if that were the case.

GROSS: Is Tillerson much of a carrot? Is he holding out many carrots?

FILKINS: Well, I think the carrot's getting smaller. I mean - and I think that's the concern. And the hammer or the stick is getting bigger. And so if you look at their respective budgets, the Office of Management and Budget, which has drawn up the proposed budget for 2018 - for next year - which is what they're fighting about right now - they would cut the State Department's budget by 30 percent. And that's about - the State Department is - the budget's about - right now about $55 billion a year. And they are proposing - at the same time that they're cutting the State Department by 30 percent, they're proposing a $50 billion increase for the Pentagon. So they're - the proposal on the table right now is to increase spending on defense as much as, or nearly as much as, the entire budget for the State Department.

And so if you stand back and think about that, what does that mean for American foreign policy? You know, you've got the guns over here, and you've got the diplomats over here. And they are cutting the resources for the diplomats, and they're giving more resources to the guys with guns. And so I think that's what's disturbing to a lot of people right now - that the balance is changing.

GROSS: But Tillerson seems to be one of the people leading the charge in dismantling the State Department. I mean, you write that there are, like, 48 ambassadorships that are vacant. Twenty-one out of 23 assistant secretary positions are vacant or occupied by provisional employees because Congress hasn't confirmed appointees to the position. How much of this is intentional on Rex Tillerson's part?

FILKINS: Well, I - that there - I think there's two answers to that question. The first is - to answer your question - he has his marching orders, and it's to cut the budget and to cut the number of people - cut the number of diplomats working for the United States. And he's doing that. He's doing that, and he's - or he's trying to do it. And, you know, Congress is actually pushing back. Remarkably, even the Republicans in Congress are saying, look, this is crazy. This is too much. These cuts are too deep. You know, we have to have a diplomatic presence abroad.

And at the same time, I think that Tillerson is having a very, very difficult time - very difficult time - filling jobs and filling - you know, typically at the State Department, you have the secretary of state, and then he's surrounded by assistant secretaries of state. And there's 25 of them or so. And what's happened, in this case, is because so many Republican - let's say senior Republicans who - with deep experience on foreign policy - so many of them during the campaign publicly spoke against the Trump candidacy or signed letters, which were, you know, published in newspapers, et cetera, saying, Donald Trump is not fit to be president.

And so the whole Republican bench that you would call on to bring in to a new Republican administration, they're essentially blackballed. And if you go down those lists, that's a really long list. It's most of the real brain power in the Republican foreign policy establishment. So the result is, Tillerson can't get anybody to work for him.

GROSS: Let's talk about North Korea. I mean, President Trump has said, we could totally destroy North Korea. North Korea has vowed to develop a nuclear missile capable of hitting the U.S. and warned it can conduct a hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific. No ambassador to South Korea has been confirmed yet. Trump also warned recently that this is the calm before the storm. And nobody's really sure what he means by that, and he's declined to clarify. It's kind of like, you'll see.

So - and the president tweeted, presidents and their administrations have been talking to North Korea for 25 years. Agreements made and massive amounts of money paid hasn't worked. Agreements violated before the ink was dry, making fools of U.S. negotiators - sorry, but only one thing will work.

And I think it's kind of implied what that one thing is. But we don't really know for sure what he means. So what's your sense of how close we're getting to an actual nuclear war with North Korea?

FILKINS: Well, I don't know if it'd be a nuclear war, but it would be - it'd be a very terrible war. I remember Secretary Mattis - I was on his plane earlier this year. And he said if - and he's really sober about this. And he said, if there is a war with North Korea, it will bring the worst casualties and the worst bloodshed that any of us have ever known in our lifetimes. You know, that's pretty strong stuff. And I think the - I think here's where we are.

The Trump administration has decided, I think - it's pretty clear - that the prospect of North Korea getting a workable ICBM with a nuclear warhead is worse than the prospect of war. So, I mean - and I spoke to people inside the administration who told me that. They said, we will not allow them to have a working ICBM. It's not going to happen. And we will go to war if we have to. So short of that, what can you do? You can make a deal.

And so the plan - and I think this is what Tillerson has been working very hard on - is to squeeze the North Koreans. And there's basically one way to squeeze the North Koreans, and that's to squeeze China - to squeeze the North Koreans, and that it - because the Chinese economy is kind of - it's the main - it's the only lever, really, to pressure the North Koreans. And so the Chinese have been very reluctant to do that. They're - for a lot of reasons - I mean, the main one is, they don't want to have the North Korean state collapse on their borders. They're terrified of that. They don't want North Korea to have a nuclear weapon, I don't think, any more than we do.

But so that's the challenge right now, but I think it's also the one means that the White House sees to make a deal is working with China. And that's what Tillerson has been trying to do. So he's been, you know, flying to China. He's made several trips out there, and he's pushing them. We have channels open to the North Korean leadership. And so, you know, to get back to President Trump, so the - so at the same time that, you know, the diplomats were trying to make a deal to stave off war, the president is sending out these tweets saying, I'm going to - you know, I'm going to annihilate North Korea, et cetera. And I don't think there's any calculation involved in that. I think the - you know, the president is just, you know, firing.

GROSS: OK, well, let's take a short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins, a New Yorker staff writer who covers foreign affairs. His new piece is called "Rex Tillerson At The Breaking Point." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins, who is a staff writer at The New Yorker and covers foreign affairs. His new piece is about the secretary of state. It's called "Rex Tillerson At The Breaking Point."

Rex Tillerson told you - because you had a chance to speak with him - that he told China that if China and the U.S. don't solve this - if he and his counterpart don't solve this - these two guys - meaning Kim Jong Un and President Trump - these two guys get to fight, and we will fight.

FILKINS: Yeah. Yeah, it's pretty scary.

GROSS: Did he elaborate on that for you? Like, what...

FILKINS: Well, yeah, a little bit. I mean, he essentially meant, look, the way this is - the way diplomacy works and works best is if it's backed up by a threat of force. So when I walk in the room and I sit down with the Chinese, I say, look, you and I can make a deal, and we can, like, sign it on paper. And if we don't, if diplomacy fails, there's going to be a war. And nobody wants a war, so let's do the deal. And I think, you know, that sounds right. Theoretically, that's - and it sounds right. It's just terrifying.

GROSS: Well, it - there seems to really be a game of brinksmanship being played right now.


GROSS: And when you say you were told - and I forget who told you this - that if we go to war with North Korea, there will be more casualties than - what? - than...

FILKINS: Any of us know - have seen in our lifetimes. And that was Secretary Mattis.

GROSS: Oh, right. And I can - and he's...

FILKINS: And you know...

GROSS: He (laughter)...

FILKINS: He's seen a lot of war, you know? I mean...

GROSS: He's seen a lot of war, right. So do you have any idea what kind of war he's envisioning if we do go to war with North Korea? And I hate to even utter those words.

FILKINS: Yeah, God forbid. I think there's a lot of different options. And, I mean, I've had some discussions about what those options are. I think they're all terrible. I think that the easy scenario to imagine - I mean, it's a terrible scenario - is the moment the United States strikes North Korea, say. And we're speaking only theoretically here. The North Koreans have at their disposal thousands of artillery rounds that are within striking range of Seoul. And I think, you know, metropolitan Seoul has how many people - 20 million people. And so you can imagine.

So if the leadership of North Korea is, you know, still alive and if every piece of its army is still functioning - any piece of its army's - is still functioning after that initial exchange, then they will fire everything they have at Seoul. And I think that's - you know, that's what's got everybody's attention. The prospect of that is terrifying because the bloodshed would be immense.


FILKINS: And, you know, the numbers that you see are just - they're terrifying. I mean, it's, you know, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of casualties.

GROSS: I'm wondering if you feel any echoes of the eve of the Iraq War right now when President Bush and Saddam Hussein were threatened - threatening each other when President Bush decided to move forward not exactly unilaterally, but not really with the backing of the U.N. either. You know, we had some allies, but it wasn't the full force of the U.N. Do - you covered the Iraq War. You covered it right from the start. So are you feeling any similarities now?

FILKINS: Well, the - I think the difference is, in Iraq, it was basically the United States. I mean, we'd - you know, Great Britain came along, but - and the United States was utterly determined to take down Saddam, you know? Come what may, we're going to do it. And so there was this kind of, like, heedlessness involved. You know, we're - we are going to do this. And the whole world was kind of freaking out.

It's different in North Korea. I mean, I do feel like I have a - whenever I sit down and talk to somebody in Washington about - who knows the North Korean situation, I get these butterflies in my stomach because it feels like these are two - you know, North Korea and the United States, they're both people who are - at the moment who are not willing to compromise. And that means, if that doesn't - if they don't reach a compromise, we're going to go to war. And I think the prospect of war is very, very real.

And so in that sense, I'm feeling, like, pretty nervous about it. But I think that in - the difference between now and, say, in Iraq in 2003 was that I think the whole world is pretty worried about North Korea. You know, it's a kind of crazy, unpredictable regime. And I think that the whole world is united in wanting to stop North Korea from acquiring an ICBM.

So to get back to what I had said earlier, I think the Trump administration - I spoke to somebody about this at some length - said that we - the reason why we cannot allow North Korea to acquire an ICBM is, think of the consequences. They would - they might use one. Oh, they'll start threatening Japan. They'll start threatening South Korea. They'll threaten the United States. They - it will probably prompt, or could prompt, the Japanese to reversing, you know, decades of being a - having a very, very small defense force. They may have to go nuclear. So it could destabilize the whole region.

You - there's no evidence that North Koreans would ever think twice about selling their nuclear technology to another country. So all of those things are terrifying as well. And so what the Trump administration has concluded is that this - or that scenario that I just painted - we cannot allow that, and we will not allow that under any circumstances.

GROSS: So if there is a war with North Korea, as it's possible there will be, is there any scenario that you've heard in which the U.S. uses a nuclear weapon against North Korea?

FILKINS: Yes. Yes, I've had that conversation. It's terrifying. I mean, it's just not even something that you want to think about. But I will tell you about a conversation I had with a very senior person. He said, the problem, if the North Koreans, say, are 2 inches away from acquiring the capability - you know, a workable nuclear-armed ICBM - and we need to stop that, how do we do that? We kill the leadership, basically. We take out the whole leadership - Kim Jong Un, everyone around him.

Now, how do you do that? Because, you know, do we know where they are? Are they all scattered? And that's where the nuclear weapon came in in the conversation that I had. So in other words, you decapitate the regime, and maybe you can avert the kind of horrible consequences that we've talked about with the North Koreans raining artillery shells down on greater Seoul. But that's pretty terrifying. I think that option has been discussed. I think it's on the table. That's what was related to me. But, I mean, it's pretty terrifying.

GROSS: How do you use a nuclear weapon to decapitate the regime?

FILKINS: God if I know. I don't know. I mean, because - I don't know. I mean, I think that the idea, at least in the discussion that I had, was that that would be the only way that you could guarantee that you would basically obliterate the leadership, wherever it was. The problem with that, obviously, is that you're going to end up obliterating a lot of other things as well. And so I - you know, you - there's no such thing as a surgical nuclear strike.

And so I think if - you know, if nuclear weapons came into play here, the consequences would be horrifying. And I don't - you know, I don't - this is what - I think this is what keeps people awake at nights. I mean, everybody's thinking about these options, and there are no good options. They're all bad - all of them. But the nuclear one, of course, is conceivably the worst.

GROSS: My guest is Dexter Filkins. His new article "Rex Tillerson At The Breaking Point" is in the current issue of The New Yorker. We'll talk more after a break. And our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, will have an appreciation of pianist and composer, Thelonious Monk, who was born 100 years ago today. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Dexter Filkins, a staff writer for The New Yorker who covers foreign affairs. His new article is titled "Rex Tillerson At The Breaking Point: Will Donald Trump Let The Secretary Of State Do His Job?" Filkins covered the war in Iraq for The New York Times and is the author of the book, "The Forever War," which won the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction.

After having written this piece about Rex Tillerson, for which you interviewed a lot of people in the State Department, and my impression is maybe some people in defense as well, people in the administration - what did you leave knowing that you didn't know before, in terms of the larger story of where we're going with North Korea and Iran?

FILKINS: Well, I think the most - you know, I've worked all around the globe, and I've been to, like, a zillion American embassies around the world. And, you know, they're all kind of the same. You, you know, show your passport, and you go inside. And you meet the diplomats, and they're all very competent. And they speak the language, and they know the history and the politics. And you kind of take it for granted.

You know, we have a really good State Department, and the embassies are filled with competent people. But you take it for granted. Like, what do they do in there? I think what I learned is that the world that we live in is governed by a very large kind of architecture of economic and political arrangements that have been, you know, whether by treaties or agreements - that have been kind of written, and orchestrated and erected since the second - the end of the Second World War.

And basically, if you go back to - I quoted Truman's - President Truman's secretary of state in my piece, Dean Acheson. If you go back that far, to the 19 - late '40s and early '50s, you know, Acheson says, we inherited a world that was in chaos and in ruins, and we wanted to, at - you know, at any cost, we wanted to avert another world war. And how can we do this? And so they came up with, you know, everything - all these institutions that we know today - The United Nations, NATO, you know, the European Union. And not - you know, this stuff was very ad hoc and, kind of - you know, this institution got formed in 1948 and the next one in 1950. And they kind of evolved over time.

But that - today, we've inherited this kind of vast architecture of arrangements, and relationships and treaties, and so that everything from bandwidth - computer bandwidth - to the number of bluefin tuna that you can take out of the water every year - just the number of things which are negotiated, and written down, and codified in treaties and which are managed every day by our diplomats because there's disputes going on all the time and these arrangements have to be changed and altered - this is the world that we live in. And this is, you know, the world that we have - and, you know, for all of its problems.

But it's - and I think the thing that is troubling is - and the thing it - which is worrying and which I think everybody needs to kind of think about is, if we - are we dismantling this? Is that what Secretary Tillerson and President Trump are doing when they say, we want to cut the budget of the State Department by 30 percent? If - I asked Secretary Tillerson, and he said no, that's not what we want to do. But when you see what's happening to our diplomatic corps and you see what's the - what the budget cuts are potentially doing and the people who are leaving, the amount of expertise which is leaving, it's scary. It's scary.

And I - you know, it worries me when I sit down with, you know, these immensely talented people at the State Department who are totally demoralized, and they're retiring, and they're leaving and they're quitting, and these are people that, you know - God, whether the - whether you want to know about the rain forest in Brazil, or Ebola in West Africa or, you know, the state of democracy in this - in Gujarat in India, they got somebody who knows about that. And they speak the language, and they know the history. And that's - I don't know if it's - if I'd go as far as to say that's being dismantled right now, but it's under threat. And, yeah, that's really troubling to me because, you know, what comes after, if we do that?

GROSS: And it's hard to rebuild something. This whole, like, network of treaties, and ambassadors and agreements, it's hard to rebuild something like that if it's torn apart.

FILKINS: Yeah. I mean, you're talking about - what you're really talking about is American leadership in the world. If you don't have American leadership, who's it going to be? Is it going to be Russia? Is it going to be China? And I - you know, that's a very different world.

GROSS: Rex Tillerson was - I mean, he spent his whole career before becoming the head of the State Department - he spent his whole career at Exxon. He worked his way up to CEO. A CEO of Exxon's worldview is very different from a State Department head's worldview. And at the State Department, you're protecting the interests of the United States.

And at Exxon Mobil, you're protecting the bottom line. You're looking to expand markets and increase profits. And sometimes, that means working against the U.S. foreign policy best interests. Did you talk to Tillerson about that when you had a chance to talk with him? And did you get a sense that he's trying to change his - the lens through which he sees the world?

FILKINS: Yeah, a little bit. I think what's amazing about Exxon - you know, it's one of the world's most successful corporations. It goes all the way back to Standard Oil, you know, decades ago. It is an enormous company. I think its annual revenues are close to $400 billion, which means, in sort of monetary terms, it's larger than most of the world's economies.

It operates in more than 100 countries. They have something like 70,000 employees. They're everywhere. And they are so big. And they are so good at what they do that they essentially have their own foreign policy. And it may or may not jive with what the foreign policy of the United States is. But their - you know, their job's to go get the oil. And if, you know, the United States government - and I'll give you an example.

So in 2012, the Exxon was making a deal with the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq. You know, that's a very problematic - you know, Iraq is a very problematic place. But the Kurds - you know, they've been trying to break away from Iraq and declare independence for years. And the Iraqi government was opposed to Exxon making a deal with the Kurds because they thought, OK, well, then they're going to give them the oil. Then they're going to take off. The Obama administration was against Exxon making that deal. And they both - the Iraqi government and the American government - came to Exxon and said, please don't do this. Exxon did it anyway.

That was - and that was Exxon under Tillerson. They do their own thing, pretty much. And so if you take, again, just a couple more examples - Exxon lobbied against American sanctions against Russia, against Iran, against Ukraine. They lobbied against all those. They - you know, they follow them now that they're in place. But they spent millions of dollars pushing their lobbyists to block those sanctions from being imposed. So their - you know, their interests are very different. It's a - you know, it's a private company.

And so Rex Tillerson the CEO takes off his CEO hat. He spent his career essentially representing a private enterprise. And now he's at - he's in an institution which is completely different. You know, yes, it's global in the same way that Exxon is. But the range of kind of interests - and it's the public interest rather than, say, a narrow, private interest. And I think that's the transition that he's having to make right now.

GROSS: So the - but that means changing positions, right?

FILKINS: Yes. Yes, it does. And so as the CEO of Exxon, the - Exxon was opposed - Tillerson was opposed and lobbied against sanctions against Iran. And they, Exxon - this is my piece, but Exxon set up a subsidiary, a foreign subsidiary, that did business with - it sold millions of dollars - did millions of dollars in business with Iran, Syria, Sudan - all countries that we have sanctions against. And so now Tillerson is the secretary of state, and he's got a - he's looking at Iran as an adversary. Can he do that? I guess he can do it, but it's quite a change. It's quite - you know, that's a different lens entirely.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new piece is called "Rex Tillerson At The Breaking Point." Let's take a short break here, then we'll be back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins. He covered the war in Iraq for The New York Times. He's now a staff writer at The New Yorker where he writes about foreign affairs. His new piece is called "Rex Tillerson At The Breaking Point."

You tell a story in your article about Rex Tillerson where Tillerson goes into President Trump's office to introduce a potential appointee to the State Department, and President Trump just starts talking about how there is - what? - I think a new regulation that prevents companies from bribing foreign powers or something. And Tillerson's like wait, wait, wait. Like, we don't do that kind of - we didn't do that kind of thing at Exxon. That's not what businesses are supposed to do. Can you explain that story and tell us what you make of it?

FILKINS: Yeah, it's an amazing story. So Tillerson's taking in the guy, I think it was the person he wanted to be his deputy, to meet President Trump. And, you know, they shake hands really fast, and then President Trump starts fulminating against the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prevents American businesses from bribing foreign officials. And then Trump - Tillerson says to Trump - he said let me tell you a story, Mr. President. I don't agree with you on that, but when I was with Exxon, we did a deal in Yemen once and during the negotiation - little break in the negotiation - the Yemeni oil minister came up to me and handed me his business card. And when I flipped it over, I saw that there was a Swiss bank account on the back of the card. And the Yemeni oil minister said to me $5 million. And he said, I - Tillerson told the president I looked at him and I said I don't do that, Exxon doesn't do that, and we're walking away. And they went home.

And two weeks later or a month later, the Yemenis called Exxon and said, can you come back? We still want to do the deal. No bribes. And Tillerson's point was we don't play ball like that and you don't have to and I think the - you know, we should bring - you know, America should bring other countries up to our standard rather than the other way around. So I think - I think - and the president apparently was at least momentarily mollified.

GROSS: Now, you write that the only person who's actually, like, made some progress on North Korea is Nikki Haley, who succeeded at the U.N. in getting some economic sanctions against North Korea. Then you write that Tillerson really hates Nikki Haley. How come?

FILKINS: Well, you know, I don't know - I don't know specifically why they hate each other, but, you know, in any administration, the egos are pretty big. You know, they're - these are very motivated, driven people with a great sense of self-importance. And I think Tillerson has had a difficult time. And Nikki Haley has done pretty well in New York. She has successfully gotten two rounds of sanctions on the North Koreans. And, you know, she speaks publicly a lot whereas Tillerson has kind of been much more reluctant to speak.

So her star is brighter right now and so I think there's, you know, I think there's some resentment there. And then if you go kind of deeper into the, you know, Washington never-ending kind of cocktail party chatter, it's that if Tillerson leaves, you know, Nikki Haley is going to - is all ready to step right into that job. And so does Rex Tillerson feel Nikki Haley, you know, nipping at his heels? You know, maybe, but yeah, they clearly don't like each other too much.

GROSS: So you profiled General Mattis, who is now secretary of defense. You profiled him a few months ago for The New Yorker, and you knew him in Iraq. So here he is like a professional warrior now heading the Defense Department, and they had to kind of amend the rules in order to confirm him because any general's supposed to wait - any military person's supposed to wait seven years before taking a position as secretary of defense. And it was fewer years than that when he was confirmed. So you have impressions of Mattis getting back to the Iraq War.

So as a professional warrior, do you think that leaves him in a position where he would be more reluctant to send our men women - men and women into war because he knows what war is like? And you know, President Trump has never been to war. He has never seen what war is like. General Mattis has. At the same time, that's what he knows how to do. I mean, he knows how to fight a war. He's a general. So, you know, some people say if you see a surgeon, the only thing they know how to do is perform surgery. So some people wonder about General Mattis. Is that, like, the thing he knows how to do is to lead a war? So knowing him to the extent that you do and observing him to the extent that you did to write your profile of him, what do you think?

FILKINS: Secretary Mattis is incredibly complex person, and it's really hard to kind of say with any great authority what he's thinking. When you ask me - it's really fun to spend time with him because he's so interesting and he's so well-read. And you ask him a question and the answers you get are just really often very surprising and super sophisticated and very colorful. And he's just a really interesting guy. But he is the things that you say. He's - he has spent his life in uniform fighting, and he's a - he's absolutely first and foremost a warrior.

Having said that, he is incredibly well read and has a deep appreciation I think of kind of not just the use of force but also diplomacy. And so I think - I remember, you know, he's told Congress - but he said it to me as well - he said, look, if you're not going to hire more diplomats, then you should just buy me more bullets because that's what you're going to get basically, that, you know, he appreciates I think the idea that, you know, war or the use of force is an instrument of politics. And it's not an end in itself. And having said that, though, he is - he's - as a soldier or as a Marine, he's incredibly aggressive.

And that is - that's his reputation. I think this goes to the heart of what I think is troubling everyone about what's happening at the State Department, which is the diminishment of the State Department while at the same time the Defense Department is getting, you know, more money than ever or, you know, certainly a lot more money than it got last year. And that - that's the concern, which is, you know, if all you have is a hammer, you're going to use a hammer. And that's not - I don't think that's so much Mattis because I think he's a pretty - he's a very restrained guy, and he has seen war and he knows - he's watched people die. But in this administration, which is to say President Trump and the people around him, I'm - there's not a lot of evidence that they really value the art of diplomacy. But they certainly understand what the military does. That they got.

GROSS: Dexter, it's great to talk with you again. Thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.

FILKINS: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Dexter Filkins is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His article, "Rex Tillerson At The Breaking Point," is in the current issue. After we take a short break, our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will have an appreciation of pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, who was born 100 years ago today. This is FRESH AIR.